Disembarking from my first class air-conditioned cabin (courtesy of Thalys) I stepped onto the platform at Gare du Nord (Paris, Saturday 18th August, 2012) in a smoldering 39 degrees Celsius … and don’t even get me started on the poorly conceived construction of the station – with their multiple sun roofs the station could very well be a greenhouse. After orienting myself I found my way to my lodging for the night – Vintage Hostel & Budget Hotel (Rue de Dunkerque 73, http://www.vintage-hostel.com). And please, lets not romanticize hostel living. In spite of friendly reception staff and cool common living quarters on the ground floor, the rooms on the other hand are highly suspect. I shared a room with two other guys (who slept all the while never leaving the room from my arrival at 4pm Saturday afternoon through to me checking out at 7.30am Sunday morning). Can someone say nightmare central? My one prayer was that I should survive the night without being the subject of organ trafficking, or worse! At any rate, let me not over-dramatize the issue. It was a relatively cheap accommodation (at 40 EURO) just to lay my head down (I would nevertheless pay a little more next time for a single room). Introductory remarks aside, what I had come to Paris for was to visit the SUPER SIX – this being my own list of priorities of course on this short visit: 1) Basilique du Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre (dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus); 2) Arc de Triomphe at the centre of the Place Charles de Gaulle (Place de l’Étoile); 3) La Tour Eiffel (Eiffel Tower) located on the Champ de Mars; 4) Basilique du Notre Dame de Paris on the eastern half of the Île de la Cité; 5) The Panthéon in the Parisian Latin Quarter; and 6) Musée du Louvre on the right bank of the Seine.
1. Basilique du Sacré-Cœur
After freshening up on arrival at the Vintage Hostel on Saturday I made pilgrimage to the butte Montmartre, the highest point in the city, to pay homage in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Designed by Paul Abadie, construction began in 1875 and was finished in 1914. It was consecrated at the end of World War I in 1919. If it is panaramic views you are interested in – then skip the long lines and the paid admission to the top of the Eiffel Tower and visit Sacré-Cœur for free access. I was really pleased that the masses were kept out of the main area for the faithful to pray unimpeded by stampeding onlookers and flash photography. Another gem is that since 1885 (before construction had been completed), the Blessed Sacrament has been continually on display in a monstrance above the high altar. Perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament has continued uninterrupted in the Basilica since 1885. After prayers were offered, I made my way down the hill through Montmartre and its many street markets and pavement café’s. Catching the metro from Pigalle I arrived at Charles de Gaulle Étoile where the imposing Arc de Triomphe greeted me in all it’s splendor.
2. Arc de Triomphe Commissioned by Emperor Napoleon, the Arc de Triomphe Paris, the most monumental of all triumphal arches, was built between 1806 and 1836. The triumphal arch is in honor of those who fought for France, in particular, those who fought during the Napoleonic Wars. Engraved on the inside and at the top of the arch are all of the names of the generals and wars fought. There are inscriptions in the ground underneath the vault of the arch which include the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I where the Memorial Flame burns and have made the Arc de Triomphe Paris a revered patriotic site.
The Arc de Triomphe stands 50m tall, 45m wide and 22m deep. The vault is 29.19m high and 14.62m wide. The smaller vault is 18.68m high and 8.44m wide [just a bit of trivia – there will be a quiz at the end of this reading 😉 A 9 EURO ticket gave me full access to the terrace of Arc – 284 steps later I was at the top. From that birds-eye view the expanse of the Parisian horizon called out to embrace all that the city had to offer. My last stop before retiring to the hostel for the night was the Eiffel Tower – I had to see it all lit up in evening glory.
3. La Tour Eiffel (Eiffel Tower)
Named after the engineer Gustave Eiffel and erected in 1889 as the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair, it has become both a global cultural icon of France and one of the most recognizable structures in the world. The tower is the tallest structure in Paris and the most-visited paid monument in the world. I could not anticipate how many people would be lined up to scale it’s dizzying heights until I arrived there … which merely confirmed that there was no way I would spend hours in line for a brief elevator ride to it’s summit. I must however say that the structure is impressive, especially at night with the light-show put on for the many couples and families sprawled on the surrounding lawns enjoying a glass of wine, some cuisine and hearty conversation.
4. Basilique du Notre Dame de Paris
Rising at 7am Sunday morning (happy that I wasn’t chopped up into tiny pieces by my roommates during the course of the night) I participated in Mass at 8.30am and the Office of Lauds (morning prayer) at Notre Dame Cathedral (dedicated to Our Lady of Paris). Widely considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture and among the most well-known churches ever built (rivaled in popularity only by St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona). The cathedral treasury is notable for its reliquary, which houses the purported crown of thorns, a fragment of the True Cross and one of the Holy Nails – all instruments of Christ’s Passion. That being said, the French liturgy was the most moving experience of the pilgrimage. The melodies of the well-trained cantors succeeded in lifting the soul to God.
5. The Panthéon
Following his conversion to Christianity in 507AD, King Clovis was the first to build a basilica on this site, destined to house his tomb and that of his queen, Clotilda. Saint Geneviève (patron saint of Paris), who protected Paris from the barbarians, was buried here in 512 AD. Her relics were later transferred after many changes since it now functions as a secular mausoleum containing the remains of distinguished French citizens. Among those buried in its necropolis are Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Èmile Zola, Jean Moulin, Marie Curie, Louis Braille, Jean Jaurés and Jacques-Germain Soufflot, its architect.
One of the permanent features of the site is Foucault’s Pendulum, demonstrating the rotation of the earth, first installed in 1851. It is illustrative of how scientific knowledge started to become more accessible to the wider public. Another happy surprise was that there was a Jean-Jacques Rousseau art exhibition at the time of my visit above and beyond the journey through the crypt. After catching the RER from Luxembourg station I headed to the last stop on my itinerary via Palais Royal Musée du Louvre metro station – home of the Mona Lisa – the Louvre Museum.
6. Musée du Louvre
Passing through the shopping area I came upon the Inverted Pyramid through the underground access. And of course everyone was doing the usual poses that one sees in photos the world over from those who visit here. Had I been accompanied by someone I may have been tempted to do the same corny shots. There were similar shenanigans topside at the Pyramid main entrance. The Information Desk at the museum is so helpful and the bag check service was a welcome relief (at least I didn’t have to carry my bag around with me all those hours in the museum). In order not to do a mad dash of the museum (as I did of the Reina Sofia in Madrid in 2011) I decided to focus on one wing (the Denon Wing which houses, among others, the famous Napoleon III Apartment, the Seated Scribe, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I, de Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and the huge depiction of the Wedding Feast of Cana.
I must say something, and I know I may be stoned for this, but I don’t get the fuss around the Mona Lisa – I wasn’t impressed! So much hype for something of such small scale. There were other works that I found far more impressive. On a practical note, I think the museum staff needs to manage the traffic around the Mona Lisa – considering how small it is, they should facilitate better flow. Everyone simply hogs the space, not moving along and allowing others the same benefit. I may have had a different perspective on it’s value if that were the case. The Wedding Feast of Cana on the opposite wall was far more moving. After a few hours inside the museum I made my way outside for some lunch and fresh air. Passing through the Galerie du Carrousel (Arc du Triomphe du Carrousel) I scored some lunch and a cool beverage and rested a while on the luscious lawns that surround the area.
What of course really confounded me was that while I was trying to stay out of the scorching sun others were tanning seemingly unperturbed by the heat. The scene at the Eiffel Tower was similar – but there at least they had more sense and frolicked in the fountains to cool off.
After a hot weekend in Paris I must say I wasn’t as happy as when I boarded the Thalys Sunday evening back to Antwerp. Arriving in my home-away-from-home I found sure comfort under a cold shower. I would most surely love to visit Paris again – but next time with a loved one – because after all it is the city of love and lights (ville de l’amour et de lumières).