Eiffel Tower, Invalides, Rodin Museum, St-Germain-des-Prés, Saint-Michel, Panthéon
(About 5-6 km)
No visit to Paris would be complete without a visit to the Eiffel tower, which is also a natural starting point for an interesting Paris promenade. One of the best ways to approach a visit of this famous monument is to take the Metro from Etoile in the direction of Montparnasse / Denfert-Rochereau, which takes you over the Bir-Hakeim bridge. After leaving the Passy station, as the Metro goes over the bridge the view of the river and the Eiffel tower is quite spectacular. If you then get out at the Bir-Hakeim station you can walk along the riverside (Quai Branly) to the Champ de Mars. Another interesting way is to start from the Trocadero square and enjoy the more formal view from the Palais de Chaillot (built for the 1937 Paris exhibition) as you walk down (avoiding the skateboarders) to the river and cross the Iena bridge.
The world's most famous tower was designed by two draftsmen, Koechlin and Nouguier, in Gustave Eiffel's construction company, and an architect (Sauvestre) in 1882, as a candidate for the centennial of the Revolution in 1889. Due to the growing popularity of iron and steel construction in architecture (notably the Library of St. Geneviève in Paris by Labruste and Paxton's Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London), the organizers ruled that all major constructions should be made of iron or steel, and Eiffel's designers took up the challenge for a 300-meter tower (1,000 feet), based on the experience they had with building iron bridges.
It's curious to note that the men largely responsible for the esthetic attraction of Paris were not artists or architects but engineers, albeit chosen for their good taste. Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand (who had been responsible for creating the parks in Paris for Haussmann) was ‘Commissaire Générale’ at the head of the committee for the 1889 Universal Exhibition and he was largely responisble for pushing modern iron and steel structures such as Eiffel's 300 meter tower and Dutert/Cottancin's 115 meter wide ‘Palais des Machines’ (unfortunately dismantled in 1910 in what was described as an act of "artistic sadism"). At the time of its building between January 1887 and March 1889 the tower had already become a symbol of the exhibition and was considered an eyesore by all and sundry (it was likened to a hatpin sticking up from the skyline), as opposed to the universal acclaim for Eiffel's other famous work, with a little help from Bartholdi, the iron framework of the statue of ‘Liberty’. Since then it has proved to be useful for radio, TV and telecommunications transmissions (whose antennas brought the height to 320 meters) as well as an advertising campaign for Citroen, and it has become perhaps the most representative monument of Paris even of the beauty of Paris. It has also been cited (by Reyner Banham) as the first mature example of the modern concept of space, or as he put it "Here every variety of modern spatial experience, plus some that are unique to the Tower, is piled on the viewer in such abundance that he begins to feel insecure and disoriented. Here is participation in infinity... here is space that flows away behind structure and spills down stairways; here is space through which the observer moves". Moreover, for the new millennium and subsequent new-year celebrations it offered a ready-made solution, with the addition of special lighting at night, as the focal point for France’s countdown.
One might assume that every visitor would want to go up at least to the first floor, but when you see the size of the line waiting for the elevator whatever the weather you can understand why many are discouraged. And you have to be pretty athletic to want to take the stairs (remember Alec Guinness in the film 'Lavender Hill Mob'), even though the sensation of a unique spatial experience is strongest climbing the spiral staircase. If you are really organized and not too impecunious you might want to kill three birds with one stone and lunch or dine at the ‘Jules Verne’ restaurant on the second floor; that will offer you not only a private elevator without waiting in line, but you also get an equally spectacular view of Paris while enjoying a good meal at one of the most prestigious restaurants in the world. But you have to reserve well in advance several weeks, if not months.
If you still have enough energy after visiting the Eiffel tower or deferred the climb to another time you can walk through the ‘Champ de Mars’ park to the Ecole Militaire (the country’s leading military academy). This park is so calm you may have some difficulty imagining it as the location of a shallow amphitheater dug out to celebrate the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille (14 July 1790) with its popular parade of the National Guard (headed by Lafayette) and 'conquerors of the Bastille', or even as a parade ground for the thousands of mounted troops of Napoleon’s ‘Grande Armée’. And if you’re interested in a war museum, the ‘Ecole’ houses a very interesting one.
It is then a short walk along the Avenue de la Motte Piquet to the ‘Hotel des Invalides’ and its esplanade. This building was commissioned by Louis XIV in 1670 as an army hospital, but it is also famous for having been the source of many of the arms used to storm the Bastille in July 1789. It includes the ‘Eglise St-Louis des Invalides’ and the ‘Chapelle Royale des Invalides’, and when you see the impressive, richly gilded Renaissance dome of the latter (Jules Hardouin-Mansart, 1680-91), you can be sure it houses something pretty important the porphyry sarcophagus with Napoleon’s remains.
The French Ministry of Culture must have been thinking of making a tourist’s life easier when they bought the ‘Hotel Biron’ in 1904, right next door on the corner of Rue de Varenne. This beautiful town house and garden was built by a wig maker called Peyrenc de Moras in 1731, who sold it to the Duke de Biron, and it was later rented to people like Rodin, who had his studio there until his death in 1917. It is now a museum dedicated to Rodin’s work, including such masterpieces as the ‘Kiss’ and the ‘Thinker’.
You can continue along rue de Varenne because a few blocks further along this street is the ‘Hotel Matignon’, the French Prime Minister’s residence since 1935. This town house has the largest private garden in Paris (stretching to the rue de Babylone). In fact this part of the 7th district is full of ministries and embassies as well as private town houses and convents that quite often have superb gardens that can hardly be imagined from the street, but that the eagle-eyed Eiffel tower visitor may have seen.
Continuing to the end of rue de Varenne and crossing Boulevard Raspail, you can follow rue de Grenelle until you reach rue des Saints Pères. Turning left here, after one block you reach Boulevard Saint-Germain. You then have a choice: a) you can carry on along rue des Saints Pères to the river (Quai Malaquais) where you can see the School of Fine Arts and, in front of the much photographed Pont des Arts footbridge, the Institut de France (formerly the Collège des Quatre Nations) by Levau, with its impressive oval Baroque dome, and you can then return along rue Bonaparte; b) continue along Boulevard Saint-Germain to the square and church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
This church is the oldest in Paris, built around the turn of the first millennium on the ruins of a former abbey dating from around 558, in the meadows outside the city walls of Philip Augustus (hence 'des Prés' or in the meadows, a bit like 'fuori le mura'). The early Romanesque bell tower (the only surviving one of three originally built) is surmounted by an upper belfry and spire added in the 12th century along with the choir and the ambulatory. The immediate vicinity of this church is famous as the heart of the Left Bank artistic and literary community. This became a popular and cultural center ever since the Marais district went out of fashion in the 18th century, and many writers and intellectuals were attracted to the street cafés and book shops/book publishers (notably 'Le Flore', headquarters of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, 'Les Deux Magots' and 'Les Editeurs'). It is just one block to the Odéon crossroads, but this is such a rich area you need not follow a strict itinerary but can simply wander around breathing in the history as much as you have time for. To the north of the Odéon crossroads, between the Boulevard Saint Germain and the river, do not miss the historical Procope restaurant at No. 13 rue de l'Ancienne Comédie (famous since 1686 for being the oldest café in Paris and the meeting place of intellectuals, patrons such as La Fontaine and Voltaire, the Encyclopedists, Romantics, artists of the Comédie Française and Revolutionaries, and even Benjamin Franklin). Also look out for the contemporary art exhibitions in art galleries along rue Mazarine, rue de Seine and rue Dauphine.
On the southern side of Boulevard Saint-Germain, halfway up rue Bonaparte, do not miss the Saint-Sulpice church, especially the Angels chapel where you can see Delacroix's 'Jacob wrestling the Angel' and 'Heliodrus Expelled from the Temple' (and the meridian line in the church is not even the same as the Paris Meridian, as indicated by the Arago medallions). One block further south you'll find the Luxembourg Palace and garden. This palace was built 1615-1624 by Salomon de Brosse for Marie de' Medici (mother of the young Louis XIII), who wanted a Florentine-style palace and garden (inspired by, but an improvement upon the rusticated garden facade of the 16th century Pitti Palace and Boboli gardens in Florence), beside the existing 'Hôtel de Luxembourg' which was then just outside the city wall, in huge grounds facing due south. As befits the Medici family's tradition as art patrons, the palace was decorated by famous artists such as Rubens (a series of paintings on the life of Marie de' Medici made between 1622 and 1626, now in the Louvre), and it again houses important art works (temporary exhibitions organized by the Senate, the current tenants) as well as decorations in the library by Delacroix.
Following the rue de Vaugirard again (it is the longest street in Paris, following the path of a Roman road linking Lutetia and Dreux) you reach the Odéon theatre and then Boulevard Saint-Michel opposite Place de la Sorbonne. Richelieu, who was then the Dean of the University (founded by Robert de Sorbon in the 13th century), commissioned the church of the Sorbonne to architect Jacques Lemercier in 1642. The magnificent Italian-style dome of this chucrch indicates, like that of the Invalides, a significant resting place: that of the famous cardinal Richelieu.
Following Boulevard Saint-Michel down towards the river, between the Rue des Ecoles and Boulevard Saint-Michel you'll see the mediaeval Hôtel de Cluny, which was built on the site of Gallo-Roman baths, some vestiges of which can still be seen today. It also houses the National Museum of the Middle Ages with its famous 'Lady with the unicorn' tapestries (entrance on rue du Sommerard). The corner with Boulevard Saint-Germain was also the place where the most violent student riots were centered in 1968, but there are fortunately no vestiges of that event.
You can continue down Boulevard Saint-Michel to the fountain on the Place Saint-Michel (it's really only a decorative fountain, with a bronze statue inspired by Raphael's picture of Saint Michael in the Louvre). This is the heart of the Latin Quarter (so named because Latin was for a long time the 'lingua franca' of the university community here). To the east of this square are several small streets with a continuous buzz of activity around the concentration of numerous fast-food shops, restaurants and art cinemas. The rue de la Huchette, for example, has at least 800 years of history and can boast of one famous resident, Napoleon Bonaparte, who lived at #10 as a young man. The Quai Saint-Michel and Quai de Montebello also offer wonderful views of Notre Dame while browsing or sipping a drink and thinking perhaps of Matisse, who had a studio on Quai Saint-Michel in the early 1900's.
The next main street parallel to Boulevard Saint-Michel is the rue Saint-Jacques, which follows the path of the first Gallo-Roman road to the south of the city of Lutetia. On the corner of rue Saint-Severin you'll see the Saint-Severin church. This was built on the site of an XIth century church of the same name in the XIIIth century, but most of the current church dates from the early XVth century.
Continuing along the rue Saint-Jacques behind the Cluny museum and the Sorbonne, you'll find the Panthéon on rue Soufflot (he was the architect commissioned by Louis XV). This is an early example of the tendency at the time to revive the antique, and uses a Greek cross floorplan with an impressive dome. The tombs of more than 70 famous people are to be found in the crypt, names such as Pierre and Marie Curie, Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Jean Moulin, André Malraux etc. On the other hand you can take a staircase to the colonnade around the drum at the base of the dome for a panoramic view of most of Paris.
Just behind the Panthéon is the Saint-Etienne-du-Mont church, built in the XVth, XVIth and XVIIth centuries (in various styles, from late Gothic to early Renaissance) on the site of a former abbey dedicated to Saint-Geneviève, the patron saint of the city whose prayers saved it from destruction by Attila the Hun in the Vth century. The pastiche of styles on the outside should not deter you from seeing the inside, since it boasts the only remaining 'Jubé' or rood screen in Paris, an unusual ambulatory over the nave, and some magnificent stained-glass windows in the nave and transept.
If you follow rue Clovis and rue Monge to the rue de Navarre you'll come to the IInd century Gallo-Roman Lutetia amphitheater, unearthed during Haussmann's roadwork in 1869. Its small size attests to the comparatively limited importance of Lutetia under the Romans, but it makes a fine place for strolling and games of bowls.
And if you have time, just one block behind that is the Jardin des Plantes, which houses the oldest museum of Natural History in the world. This was the former royal garden of medicinal plants created for Louis XIII and enlarged in the XVIIIth century. The gardens are magnificent and, despite an old-fashioned, run-down appearance, the pavilions contain a fantastic number of rich treasures. But they cannot be visited after a long stroll in Paris; each pavilion could take several hours to visit, so it would be best to come back specially for a study of one or two pavilions. The Grand Gallery of Evolution is probably the best since it was renovated in 1994 and presents the zoological collection according to an evolutionary theme in an attractive way.