Friday, June 13, 2014

Playing Tourist in Paris-Centre

Vendredi, 13 juin.

WARNING: it's about to get touristy up in here.

Forget all that nonsense you've read about "the real Paris" or "the Parisians' Paris" and instead marvel at the wonderful cliche that is Paris-Centre. Today is all about the big names -- Notre-Dame. Louvre. Concorde. Champs-Elysées. They're crowded. They're expensive. But there's a reason that millions of people go see them every year!! Because. They. Are. Awesome.

My little photo tour of Paris-Centre isn't going to go chronologically, because I wandered in what must have been THE most nonsensical paths and recounting each and every little turn would take me until the end of my séjour in France. Instead, I'm going to work geographically, taking you through my wanderings from east to west. You can just scroll through the photos or follow along on this map (inserted at the bottom of the post). But now -- in the words of Fraulein Maria -- "let's start at the very beginning..."

Did you know that when Paris first began, it consisted solely of a small portion of the Left Bank and the tiny islands in the middle of the Seine? That's where the Celtics built their first settlements and where the Gallo-Romans later established the city of Lutetia. (The name "Paris" came later, derived from the Celtic tribe -- the Parisii -- who had first inhabited the region.) When Huns invaded in the early Middle Ages, the early Parisians all moved to the safest place they could find -- their trusty island in the middle of the Seine River!

Although the city of Paris has since expanded well beyond the banks of the Seine River, these two islands remain at the heart of the city. Île de la Cité is the larger and more well-known of the two.

The island was the center of medieval Paris and has housed some sort of royal residence ever since the early Merovingian kings. (Who ruled France a LONG time ago.) It has been rebuilt several times in the city's long history, but still contains some other famous historical sites, including the Sainte-Chapelle and the Conciergerie, as well as important administrative buildings, like the Prefecture de Police and the Palais de Justice. But of course, it's most widely known for one famous church...

The history of Notre-Dame Cathedral is both fascinating and confusing. If you're interested in the subject, there are hundreds of books and websites ... but I think this Wikipedia article might be the way to go for some basic stats! The church might be a little too famous for its own good at this point, but it still is an absolutely gorgeous example of Gothic architecture. I think my favorite thing about it might be how complete it looks. Its symmetry is unlike so many churches I've seen that were either never completed or, even more ridiculously, completed in multiple architectural styles. (Looking at you, Cathédrale de Chartres.)

Situated just a few meters further down the Seine River, lies the Île de la Cité's quiet, less popular sibling: Île Saint-Louis. I haven't had a chance to spend as much time there as I would like, but I feel sure that the charming streets and "small town" feel will definitely bring me back. In the meantime, you can read more about the Île Saint-Louis here.


I spent at least a half hour in the park behind Notre-Dame (on the side of Île de la Cité closest to Île Saint-Louis) on Thursday afternoon, just watching. Although most of the passers-by were typical tourists, my patience was rewarded as I watched a beautiful WEDDING take place. The couple (in the background of the photo on the right) weren't just taking wedding photos at Notre-Dame ... they did their entire ceremony right there!

Nothing like sitting alone in the most romantic city in the world watching somebody else's wedding, am I right?

Crossing from the Île de la Cité  to the Rive Gauche (the Left Bank) via the Pont de l'Archevêché affords a beautiful view of the cathedral -- and, I have decided, my personal favorite!

The Pont de l'Archevêché ("Archbishop's Bridge") is not Paris' official lock bridge (that title belongs to the Pont des Arts on the other side of the island), but its metal railings are crowded with locks, thanks to the popular tourist pastime! Want to learn more about the lock bridges of Paris? I highly recommend this this great National Geographic article.

Although crossing over to the southern half of Paris might provide the best view of Notre-Dame, a stroll to the Rive Droite reveals quite another view. I don't know how I'd never seen (or maybe just never noticed) this gorgeous building before, but the Conciergerie is now one of my new most favorite Parisian buildings. Originally part of the Palais de la Cité, it became a prison during the French Revolution. Marie Antoinette, among others, was held there.

The Hôtel de Ville is the town hall of Paris, where a lot of stuff has happened and continues to happen. (Like today, it is where a bunch of Parisians explored an outdoor exhibit about the impact of World War I on the forests of France ... you can see them in the photo on the left!) I don't know too much about this building, but it is fancy and I like it.

Walking along the right bank of the Seine, my next stop was one of Paris' uncontested incontournables -- le Musée du Louvre. It's undoubtedly the world's most famous art museum and since I didn't have a chance to visit it the last time I was in Paris, I figured I'd check it out. Because entry for young people is free on Friday evenings, I sat in the sunny courtyard and waited for the museum to clear out a little bit.


As for the actual Musée du Louvre... well, let's just say that I was not as prepared as I should have been. I wandered on in for free with my carte etudiante, just planning to follow the map and check out a few masterpieces. You know, because that seemed feasible at the time. And then I wound up COMPLETELY ALONE in the basement with a bunch of ancient Greek steles...

Luckily, the basement was my low point. (Pun intended.) It got better from there, as I decided to just do my own thing and walk around. It's definitely not what I would recommend for somebody trying to see the masterpieces on a strict schedule. (If that's what you have in mind, map out your plan of attack and invest in an audio guide and some good walking shoes.) But hey, it worked out pretty well for me!

I didn't see all the art that I had hoped to, but the Louvre is a gorgeous building and I really enjoyed taking in some of the architecture of the building itself. I feel like if it were not a world-famous museum, people would still come and pay just to look at it...

I didn't even try to get close. People taking iPad selfies with Mona Lisa is more than I can handle.

Neither of these amazing -- and ENORMOUS -- paintings had a crowd.

The Louvre is separated from the rest of Paris by the simply beeeeaaautiful Jardin des Tuileries, which abuts the Place de la Concorde. You might remember some nighttime photos of Paris' largest city square from my October 2013 visit to Paris, but it was equally striking in the sunlight. The gold-capped obelisk (given to the French in the mid-19th century) is stunning. I couldn't help but notice that in this corner of Paris, even the lampposts were more beautiful!

However, my favorite part was the hilariously excessive number of pedi cabs (like the one in the photo above) waiting in the roundabout. They had every variety, from tiny two-seaters to contraptions that more resembled mini vans, and all were "the best" and "the cheapest" way to see Paris.

A little further down the Champs-Elysées, I ran into the Grand Palais and its smaller cousin, the Petit Palais. Because in a confusing city where ACTUAL palaces are now museums and administrative buildings, the only buildings still called "palaces" are, in fact, NOT palaces. I have since found out that both were built for the Exposition Universelle in 1900 ... and am a little disappointed that I spent so long looking at them!

As promised, here's a map of all the locations I checked out today...

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