|Second Empire Paris
Rue de Rivoli, Madeleine, Opera, Palais Royal
(About 4 km)
Thanks partly to Louis Napoleon's short exile in England, when he returned to Paris in 1848 as the authoritarian leader of the Second Republic and later as Emperor, he had some far-reaching plans to modernize the city and make it fit for an emperor, with an abundance of trees and squares as well as grand boulevards. He was not as megalomaniac as his uncle, but he nevertheless saw Paris as the capital of Europe.
The Second Empire was a period of rapid economic development marked by liberalism that encouraged new movements in the fields of the arts and sciences, and the most profound upheaval in the history of urban transformation. The name most associated with the latter was the new Prefect of the Seine (lord of the city hall from 1853 - 1870), Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann. He was a man with rare energy who was ready to step on any feet to accomplish the dreams of the emperor and the whims of Eugénie, the emperor's wife (especially from 1865 when she began to take on more responsibility due to Louis suffering from chronic bouts of nephritis).
The city of Paris was at that time quasi-Medieval in its disorderly arrangement for vehicle traffic, and open sewers that contaminated drinking water. Moreover, after the insurrections of 1830, 1848 and 1851/52 (not to mention Louis Napoleon's own thwarted insurrections in 1836 and 1840), it was clear that the narrow streets could be too easily barricaded and thus they were perceived as a threat to security. The Emperor had laid out a plan with bold strokes, including an east-west thoroughfare (rue de Rivoli joining with rue Saint-Antoine) and another north-south (Boulevards Sébastopol / St-Michel). In 1860 he also found a way to double the size of the city by annexing eleven suburban villages (such as Batignolles, Belleville, Bercy, Grenelle, La Villette, Montmartre, Passy, Vaugirard etc.) to add to the 12 existing districts. These acquisitions also allowed the emperor to realize another dream for the city: his appreciation of London's squares and parks now could lead to the introduction of two large parks (Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes) on the western and eastern edges of the city, as well as landscaped parks (Montsouris, Buttes Chaumont and Monceau) and a number of public gardens and squares in the city.
Haussman's boulevards were a modification of the tree-lined Baroque avenue into endless wide streets with lines of uniform houses behind the trees on either side. Old fortifications and perimeter walls (like the unpopular customs perimeter wall built 1784-91 around the 12 districts of the former Paris) were put to good use by converting them to boulevards (the word boulevard was invented here, as it comes from the German word 'bollwerk', meaning fortification), and tall trees sprang up almost overnight thanks to the ingenuity of Haussmann's team of landscape gardeners under Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand. Virgin lands, like those in the area of the Etoile at the top of the Champs Elysées, were rapidly built up, but in order to achieve the transformation of the rest of the city, Haussmann had to push these ideas ahead like a bulldozer, not only clearing away whole blocks of houses, expropriating by the thousands, but also destroying buildings of historical significance like a large part of the Arena of Lutetia to make way for the rue Monge. For all new buildings he gave strict directives to architects for a homogeneous bourgeois design, with the result that the poorer victims of expropriation were forced to move to the newly created slums of the suburbs. Haussmann stepped on toes on all sides, never hesitating to go against the wishes of the majority, and he thus acquired many detractors who dubbed him 'Haussmann Pasha', the 'municipal Louis XIV', or 'Attila de l'expropriation'. But he also made huge improvements for the sanitation of the city (separate networks for drinking water and sewers) as well as a modern market (Les Halles, built by Baltard and known as the 'belly of Paris', now replaced by a garden covering a shopping mall). And while it may be argued that it was only by chance that his wide boulevards were a godsend for later vehicle traffic, his town planning did also include better servicing by railways. He introduced a 'Petite Ceinture' (on a track ringing the city) that was opened to passengers in 1862, but this has been left in a state of abandon since 1934 when the service of the same name was provided by buses.
Even today there is no consensus about the Napoleon III-Haussmann tandem. Some believe Haussmann was a great urbanist and largely responsible for the beauty of Paris today, while others feel that he disfigured the city by the destruction of large areas and by the systematic imposition of rectilinear perspectives. Both sides agree that it is probably just as well that the massive transformation stopped when it did, leaving enough romance and poetry to be revealed by the clear views, but photos taken at the end of the 19th century (notably by Atget) show that much has been done since then to improve even on the Second Empire legacy.
The Louvre is a good starting point for several promenades in ‘royal’ Paris. Here we suggest you walk along the rue de Rivoli to the north and west of the Louvre, parallel to the Tuileries gardens to discover one of the most famous but relatively recent arcaded sidewalks in the world. This part of the rue de Rivoli, built under Napoleon I and III (with the help of their respective Prefects, Count Rambuteau and Baron Haussmann) with strictly identical facades all the way to the Place de la Concorde, is one of the most harmonious architectural achievements of the period. The same homogeneous approach was applied to the intersecting roads, such as the Place des Pyramides with its imposing equestrian statue of Joan of Arc (the charismatic 17-year-old heroine who raised the siege of Orleans during the Hundred Years’ War thus strengthening the French monarchy by leading to the coronation of Charles VII but who then suffered a year of inquisition and torture before being burned as a witch at Rouen in 1431).
A little further along is the rue de Castiglione which leads to the very swank Place Vendôme, with its famous jewelry stores and the Ritz Hotel (most recently in the spotlight thanks to Princess Diana, but also reportedly liberated by Ernest Hemingway in 1944, for which a small bar in the rue Cambon carries his name). Built in 1609, it is a very formal, perfectly symmetrical rectangle illustrating the static equilibrium of the Baroque concept of space, with a tall column in the center. The Vendôme column no doubt inspired by Trajan's column in Rome since it is decorated with a spiral bas-relief frieze illustrating the numerous successes of the ‘Grande Armée’ was made in 1810 from 1,200 melted-down canons taken from the Russians and Austrians at Austerlitz 5 years earlier. Replacing an earlier equestrian statue of Louis XIV that was torn down during the Revolution when the ‘Place Louis le Grand’ was renamed ‘Place des Piques’, the statue at the top of the column was in turn torn down by the Communards (for which Courbet got the blame) but was re-erected in 1873, this time with the current statue of Napoleon as a Roman Emperor.
Instead of continuing along the rue de Rivoli you may want to follow the rue Saint Honoré parallel to it, especially if you’re more fashion conscious than interested in bookshops and souvenir sellers, and since the place de la Concorde is covered in Champs-Elysées Vistas stroll. The closer you get to the rue Royale, the smarter the shops become, and if it’s really smart shops you’re interested in, then cross to the Faubourg Saint-Honoré and continue as far as the Elysées Palace (No. 55). This palace was acquired by Madame de Pompadour in 1753, who transformed it into the sumptuous town house it is today, but don’t expect to get past the guards to see what, since 1871, is the French President’s official residence.
You can then walk back along the Faubourg Saint-Honoré (it’s worth seeing the shops on both sides of this street) and turn up the rue Royale towards the Madeleine. This church was planned by the architect Vignon for the Emperor Napoleon in 1808, but the architect never finished it before Napoleon lost interest, and it was only completed in 1842. Although very Greek-looking to most art afficionados (with its 52 Corinthian columns), Napoleon wanted the Madeleine church to be a sort of Roman temple, dedicated to the glory of his 'Grande Armée', and it is not only imposing from the outside (thanks to its spacious site and raised podium with wide steps) but also has an impressive interior, with an 80-meter nave lighted by three cupolas.
This is a very fashionable area, and not just for clothes but also for food some of the city’s best boucherie, charcuterie, boulangerie and patisserie shops are to be found here, as well as wine specialists.
After the Place de la Madeleine, follow the Boulevard de la Madeleine and the Boulevard des Capucines to the Place de l’Opéra, that meets with another of those magnificent Haussmann axes, the Avenue de l’Opéra.
The Palais Garnier, taking its name from the architect, as with so many Parisian palaces, houses the famous Paris Opera (although the Bastille opera house has taken over most opera performances, and the palais Garnier is dedicated mostly to ballet). This is the source of Gaston Leroux's book ‘Phantom of the Opera’ (published in 1911, but only made famous by a Hollywood movie and Andrew Lloyd Webber's smash musical of the same name). And whilst it is still conjectural as to the real existence of the ghost, it is true that there are labyrinthine cellars underneath the building that were used as prisons during the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune. In fact a river runs where the foundations were to be laid in 1861, so a large vault had to be built to support the Opera House. And although it was started in the ‘Second Empire’ period, and put on hold during the troubles of 1870-71, it established a type of neo-Baroque style by the time it was finished in 1874. This masterpiece expresses more than any other building of the period except perhaps the Casino in Monte Carlo by the same architect, and another Second Empire masterpiece, the throne room in the Luxembourg palace the sumptuous luxury of the height of the Second Empire. If you find the façade superb, just look inside at the polychrome opulence of the foyer and the grand staircase, with a dominant golden sheen. And if you get a chance to see a performance in the auditorium, don't forget to look up at the ceiling, where there is a mature work of Marc Chagall, as well as the infamous chandelier responsible for an unfortunate accident in 1896.
The area just behind the Opera is also worth seeing; a short walk along rue Halevy brings you to the boulevard named after the master himself, Haussmann. From here you can get a glimpse of the uniform rows of houses, all built in stone with slate or zinc roofs with ‘five-floors, 20 meters high and topped by a mansard floor with attic’ (a formula still highly appreciated today, of which 103,000 were built in the 17 years of Haussmann's tenure). This is also the area of large department stores (or ‘grands magasins’) in the 9th district, and unless you wish to see the area around the place Saint-Georges, famous for musicians during the 1830's and 1840's, including George Sand and Chopin, Franz Liszt, Rossini and Berlioz, but also Alexandre Dumas (fils) and Delacroix, you should turn your back on temptation and go south along rue Chaussée d’Antin. Crossing the boulevard des Italiens and following rue Louis Le Grand, you’ll come back on the Avenue de l’Opéra.
As you stroll down the Avenue de l’Opéra towards the Palais Royal, don’t hesitate to look back from time to time at the Opera House silhouette at the top of the avenue to feel the pulse of the heart of the city and the quintessence of the Haussmann atmosphere ... but where are the trees? If you're wondering why there are no trees lining this avenue, it's probably because Garnier, the architect of the Opera, was against them, and the avenue was not finished when Napoleon III met his Sedan (the equivalent of his uncle's Waterloo) in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and the hegemony of Haussmann was over (he was ousted by the Commune and the Third Republic).
If you feel like a drink or a meal away from the bustle of the grand avenue, take the rue Casanova a short block and relax on the new Place du Marché Saint-Honoré.
Near the bottom of the Avenue de l’Opéra is the Palais Royal; it's not very visible, on the corner with rue Saint Honoré, hidden behind the Comédie Française (yes, Molière’s theater, and the one made famous in the 1963 film Charade, where Cary Grant and Walter Matthau chased Audrey Hepburn). Little remains today of the original palace that Cardinal Richelieu built around 1639. Louis XIV lived here when he was young, and Molière’s theater was set up in 1661, and then Anne of Austria moved in and renamed it Palais Royal. Later, Philippe the Duke of Orleans (also known as Philippe Egalité after 1792, the radical cousin of Louis XVI and father of the future King Louis Philippe) decided to transform the grounds to boost his income and help pay his debts, so he added the buildings on three sides of the long garden. It became a center for political agitation thanks to its cafés and reading of pamphlets, and the call to arms on 13 July 1789 that led to the insurrection and storming of the Bastille was given from here. The ground-floor arcades and garden ‘à la française’ with central fountain have remained much the same since 1784 (despite the burning of the palace during the Commune and the addition of an iron and glass arcade over the rebuilt front courtyard between 1829 and 1935), but the rear courtyard between the garden and the palace is now decorated by an incongruous array of striped black-and-white columns of different heights, a site-work by Daniel Buren made in 1985-86. To finish this promenade in style, you can access the arcades that run around the garden from rue de Montpensier and the rue de Valois and discover French luxury items and objets d’art, as well as some well-known restaurants in an authentic 18th century atmosphere.