When you look up tourist attractions of a city like Paris you are confronted by a very basic question – Where do I start?
For us, Saurabh and me, the answer was pretty simple and straightforward in this case. We would start at the head of the Champs Elysees and work our way towards Concorde.
The Champs Elysees translates as the Elysian fields, which is what it was until Marie de Medicis, the then Queen of France, decided to lay a long pathway lined with trees. Today that “pathway” is one of the most recognized streets in the world. At one end of the Champs Elysees is the Arc de Triumph.
The Arc de Triumph is the site of many a great occasion. Napoleon’s ashes passed under it, Victor Hugo’s body lay in state there, and in 1919 France’s victorious troops marched under it. Today, there lies the grave of the “Unknown Soldier”. This monster of a monument rises 164 feet into the Parisian sky, built out of white marble, it glows first in the sunlight and then under the power of manmade light.
After ogling at the magnificence of the Arc de Triumph, you turn around and make your way towards the Place de la Concorde. An Obelisk of Luxor, which marked the entrance to the Amon Temple of Luxor and was presented to Louis Phillipe by Mohamed Ali the viceroy of Egypt, now stands in the centre of a wide open space, which originally held the statute of Louis XV. For all its beauty, the Place de la Concorde will always smell of blood. It was here that the most prominent of France’s royalty was beheaded during the revolution. In the place of the obelisk was a guillotine. It is rumored that the stink of blood was so strong here that a herd of cattle refused to cross it. This gory past not withstanding, the beauty of the place has to be seen to be believed. If you approach the Place de la Concorde from the Arc de Triumph, on your right is the Museum of Louvre, and to your left the Madeline Church.
You pass through the narrow road between Hotel Crillon and Hotel de la Marine, taking the Rue Royale and then it comes up, a huge building regal in its bearing. You pause midstep and ask yourself, “Have I take a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in ancient Greece?” The Madeline does not remind you of a church, instead it looks and feels like one of the ancient Greek temples. Thick columns run up both its sides, and the front is a series of steps that give it a regal bearing. The word “awe-inspiring” takes on new meaning when you see the Madeline. Napoleon intended for it to be a Temple of Glory, but after many changes of ideas, it ended up as the Madeline Church in 1842.
What do you follow up with after a structure like the Madeline church?
Visit the Kingdom of the Dead, no less. The Catacombs “Arrete, C’est ici L’Empire de la Morte”, “Stop! Here is the Empire of the Dead”. This is the welcome board to what must rank as one of the most bizarre tourist spots in the world. In 1786 someone with a weird sense of humor decided to unearth all the bodies from the Cemetery of Innocents and put them all into tunnels under the Denfert Rochereau. Apart from the fact that it might have solved the unemployment problem, I cannot fathom the reason for this activity. However, what you have in the end is a gruesome series of tunnels lined with human bones. Some of the workers were pretty artistic about it and you have skulls placed to form a heart or a crucifix. But who ever thought of the brilliant idea to turn this into a tourist site and charge a Euro 5 entry fee must be lauded as the sickest person ever to walk the face of the Earth. That said, it is an experience like none other. There is nothing fearsome about it, but the fear you carry in your head. There is no skeleton waiting to pounce on you around the next corner, but you expect it. Don’t miss it if you have the stomach for such stuff.
Our next visit took us to yet another place of art, but art that could be displayed openly.
The Museum of Rodin. This is a museum like none you would have seen before and when you think of it, the setting is apt. For most part, the museum is a garden and the statues are displayed in the open air. The tour starts with Rodin’s representation of the Gates of Hell. The rest of the garden has both his completed and unfinished works. The tour then moves indoors to display his smaller works, the ones that would disappear in a garden setting due to size more than anything else.
From the Museum of Rodin, we traveled across town to the sight that is universally recognized as the defining site of Paris – The Eiffel Tower. What does one say about a structure that has been photographed and written about so much? It huge, it’s made of steel and has a lot of lights on it.
Our next port of call was the Museum of Picasso. The website claimed that the museum was open till 11 p.m., unfortunately the truth is that it closes at 5:30 and we were too late. So after a beer at a typical roadside French café, we took the metro back to Gallieni.
Sunday would be a big day, the Louvre in general and the Mona Lisa in particular beckoned.