Classic Paris: a fresh look at the City of Light

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Get to the heart of the allure of Paris with Lonely Planet Traveller’s tour of its star sights, from the heights of the Eiffel Tower to the depths of the catacombs. Words by Rory Goulding. Images by Pete Seaward.

Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower seen from the Palais de Chaillot. Image by Pete Seaward.The Eiffel Tower seen from the Palais de Chaillot. Image by Pete Seaward.

The world is filled with buildings and monuments named after monarchs, generals and businessmen, but it’s rare to find great landmarks that credit the architects or engineers who actually built them. The giant tower that greeted visitors to the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889 was planned to be merely a temporary construction. Perhaps that’s why it was excused from bearing the name of some national symbol or lofty ideal, and instead commemorates the genius of Gustave Eiffel.

‘Gustave Eiffel knew how to master the most advanced technology of the time,’ says Stéphane Dieu, who looks after the tower’s heritage. ‘For a start, the foundations of the tower’s four pillars had to be built in damp soil close to the river. Above all, it was his faith and love of science that guided him – you can see that from the frieze around the first floor, which gives the names of 72 French scientists.’

The commercial success of a 300-metre observation tower was only possible of course thanks to the invention of the elevator. Four sets of diagonal lifts climb the tower’s splayed feet to the mid-levels, through a lattice of girders that join in crosses and starbursts. The second journey is a vertical one, up the centre of the structure. As the cabin glides ever higher, the four edges of the tower close in around it. Just before it seems like the iron is about to run out, the lift stops, and opens its doors.

Eiffel’s supreme achievement was meant to be dismantled by 1909. It was only saved on his insistence that it could serve as a testing ground for scientific experiments and later as a radio transmitter. Bridges and buildings by Eiffel survive from Hungary to Bolivia. He even designed the internal framework for the Statue of Liberty. But if it hadn’t been for Eiffel’s determination, the tower that bears his name might be remembered today only from a few yellowing postcards.

Top tip: if you know your travel dates two or three months in advance, it’s worth booking a timed ticket to skip long ticket office queues (tour-eiffel.fr). You’ll need to print it out or show it on a smartphone screen.

Notre-Dame

Notre-Dame is a rare reminder of medieval Paris. Image by Pete Seaward.Notre-Dame is a rare reminder of medieval Paris. Image by Pete Seaward.

The queue to get inside Notre-Dame passes by a bronze marker in the cobblestones, denoting ‘point zéro’ – the spot from which all French road distances are measured. As an official centre point, this makes a certain amount of sense. Notre-Dame is on an island, washed by the strong current of the Seine, that was one of earliest parts of Paris to be settled in Roman times – conveniently neutral ground in the city’s Left Bank-Right Bank divide.

A lot of what appears medieval is really neo-medieval. The French Revolution took an anti-clerical turn, and the cathedral suffered for it. Most of its bells were melted down and in 1793 the 28 royal statues on the main façade were vandalised, their heads hacked off – the crowd had allegedly mistaken these Biblical rulers for kings of France. By 1831, when Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the cathedral had become a dilapidated embarrassment.

The architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was brought in to bring Notre-Dame back to glory in the 1840s. As with many of his restoration projects however, he took some creative liberties along the way. These include Notre-Dame’s famous grotesques, or chimeras – not properly gargoyles, as they serve as decoration rather than waterspouts. A dimpled, well-trodden spiral staircase leads to the Galerie des Chimères. A herd of grotesques perch on this balcony walkway between the west towers – sinewy, bearded devils, but also a pelican and even an elephant. They weren’t on the original blueprints, but then again Notre-Dame never got the spires that were meant to top its twin square towers. Perhaps a great cathedral is always a work in progress.

Top tip: on the façade’s left-hand portal, look out for the statue of St Denis. The patron saint of France is said to have walked a few miles after being decapitated, carrying his head in his arms.

Louvre

The central courtyard and glass pyramid of the Louvre. Image by Pete Seaward.The central courtyard and glass pyramid of the Louvre. Image by Pete Seaward.

The largest painting on display at the Louvre is The Wedding Feast at Cana, painted by Paolo Veronese in 1563. It covers a whole wall of the Salle des États, and in any other room it would be the focus of attention. On the wall immediately facing it however is a modest-sized portrait in smoky colours of a woman smiling enigmatically. Thanks to the Mona Lisa, known in France as La Joconde, the figures in Veronese’s masterpiece spend most of their time looking out onto a throng of people with their backs turned. The world’s most visited museum has plenty of similar treasures hiding in plain sight, beginning with the earliest work on display – a 9000-year old human figure in ghostly white plaster from Ain Ghazal in Jordan. Tutankhamun of Egypt lived closer in time to us than to the people who made this statue – a whisper from a nameless past.

‘We almost don’t want to say which rooms are less visited than they should be – we would like to keep them quiet!’ says Daniel Soulié, who has written several books on the Louvre. ‘The whole Richelieu wing and the second floor, the galleries of French sculpture and objets d’art, the paintings of the Northern European schools – these are fabulous collections which don’t get so many visitors.’

Top tip: the museum offers a variety of themed, self-guided trails, including palace history, horse-riding, The Da Vinci Code and artworks depicting love through the ages (louvre.fr).

Catacombs

Black-and-white paintings of obelisks and crosses break the patterns of the bones. Image by Pete Seaward.Black-and-white paintings of obelisks and crosses break the patterns of the bones. Image by Pete Seaward.

The Paris catacombs were a quick solution to a mounting problem. By the late 18th century, the medieval cemeteries could not keep up with the growth of the city. Old graves were dug up and bones tossed into attic-like  charnel houses to make room for more burials.

Paris already possessed a network of tunnels, built from Roman times onwards to quarry high-quality limestone for buildings such as Notre-Dame. From 1786, the old city-centre cemeteries were gradually emptied, and their contents brought to the mineshafts in a nightly stream of hearses accompanied by the chanting of priests. The last of the transfers to the catacombs was made in 1860, by which time vast suburban cemeteries such as Père Lachaise had relieved the burden on the city.

The catacombs begin with a doorway over which is written: ‘Arrête! C’est içi l’empire de la mort’ (‘Stop! Here is the empire of death’). This is the first of many cheery inscriptions that were designed, in the words of the quarries’ overseer Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, to ‘break the sinister and dark monotony’ of the catacombs, and to put the living into a philosophical frame of mind. The embankments of bones on either side of the passageways have signs stating the original cemeteries and dates of reburial. Even here the human urge to be decorative expresses itself in patterns of skulls and femurs. The first bones had been thrown in haphazardly, in a rationalist 18th century that just wanted these unsavoury remains put somewhere safely out of sight. But when burials resumed after a hiatus caused by the turmoil of the French Revolution, Romanticism had become the zeitgeist, and the catacombs were refashioned into a place where visitors could enjoy a kind of dignified melancholy.

Top tip: queues to get in can be long (sometimes over an hour), so try to arrive before the catacombs open at 10am. Dress for a temperature of around 14°C, with a few drips of water from the ceiling.