Get a breath of air in Paris

Paris offers independent travellers a mix of great cultural venues, fantastic architecture, night life and delicious food. Walking at leisure from La Defense to San Michel past the Louvre and Notre Dame is essential to taste the beauty of Paris and get in touch with the city's top attractions.

For the Young and the Young at Heart

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by marif on May 3, 2012

Like most things American, California’s ‘Magic Kingdom’ fun park is extra large but Europe’s Disneyland is no miniature either. However, from an American perspective, Euro Disney is only a small replica of a big American dream, a brought-to-life minute variant of Walt Disney’s inspirational and joyous narratives.

Whatever your view about Euro Disney, it must be said that more than fifteen million people step over its threshold annually, making it the most popular tourist attraction in France. Obviously, these people cannot all be wrong. Dedicated to the young and the young at heart, Euro Disney is without doubt an enjoyable experience, an amazing place that thrills, a fairy tale of excitement, a journey of discovery inside dark spaces and haunted castles.

These are perhaps some of the reasons that make this happy place a source of inspiration and endless fun for adults and children alike. Although the entry ticket is quite expensive and hotels within easy walking distance from the parks are mostly impersonal affairs, it must be said that most visitors are so thrilled by the extraordinary experience that they tend to ignore anything else. Commenting about his experience, a friend of mine who stayed in a Disney hotel for three nights told me: "The continental buffet breakfast was inadequate and for the price I paid, the room was too small and crammed. But being close to the park, I could stay on for the fireworks display and the magic entertainment late at night. It was wonderful!"

Although at least seven hotels are within walking distance of the park and many more are a short bus ride further away, it is estimated that less than 60% of visitors take accommodation here. The remainder are hosted in a hotel in Paris where one can find double rooms and family accommodation that cater for all budgets. After all, coming here from Paris is as simple as ABC and only takes 35 minutes. RER Line A4 runs eastbound from Central Paris to Marne-la-Vallee Chessy, the station where one has to stop for the parks. To catch the RER A4 from central Paris, use one of these stations: ‘Charles de Gaulle Etoile’, ‘Chatelet Les Halles’, ‘Gare de Lyon’ or ‘Nation’.

But what are the ingredients that make a visit to Euro Disney so magical and enjoyable? The answer to this question was given by one young visitor whom I met in a bar in Disney Village.
"Disney is a combination of seeing and doing. I’ve seen the enchanted castle of Fantasyland, I’ve watched with awe Pinocchio’s nose grow, I’ve shaken hands with Mickey and Donald, I’ve viewed the Animagique show – pink elephants dancing with colourful Disney characters, I’ve watched the Cine Magique and got in touch with the development of film making through its hundred years of history. All this was amazing but it is the doing factor that contributed most to awakening the child spirit in me. When I took the Indiana Jones ride in Adventureland, I couldn’t help keeping my mouth shut but I shouted and screamed whenever the runaway wagon speeded through dangerous loops and awkward turns. The Tower of Terror’s ambience is amazingly dreadful and I became anxious even before the lift took us to the tower’s top level from where we were dropped down to mid-level amongst lots of shouting and screaming. While attempting to catch our breath as we looked at the wonderful view through the window in front of us, we were suddenly thrown downwards again with speed. The great sensation, the thrilling experience, the heart beating and tummy turning I’ll never forget."

The young visitor’s selection of shows and interactive activities and his description of the sensations associated with them are just a minor coverage of what is available and do not in any way do justice to the scores of other boundless adventures that are equally interesting and captivating. First of all, apart from Disney Village, which is an area dedicated to shops, bars and restaurants, it must be said that Euro Disney consists of two separate parks, a stone’s throw from each other. Disneyland Park which is mostly a place of fun for the family is more popular. Walt Disney Studios is probably more suitable for teenagers and adults although children may still get fascinated by a couple of stunt shows that are definitely entertaining and eye-catching.

The entrance to Disneyland Park is characterized by colourful flowerbeds and a graceful pinkish frontal elevation that symbolizes the land of magic and dreams as illustrated in Walt Disney’s best loved fairy tales. After ticket check, visitors find themselves near Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, a huge fibreglass fairy tale construction that dominates the park with its majesty and colours.

Disneyland Park is divided into four sections, each section having its own distinct character. Discoveryland is a fiction journey into the future, concerned mostly with space missions, meteor shows and spacecraft lift-offs. My favourite here was Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast, an interactive ride with laser pistol in hand in an attempt to destroy enemy targets. Frontierland is a thrilling expedition through the legends of the Wild West. Begin your voyage aboard an old paddle steamer and enjoy a riverboat ride around the Wild West sights of Frontierland. Then step inside a haunted mansion where you will meet the bride who waited for her groom in vain. Can you unlock the mystery? Adventureland is a heart-beating and thrilling venture into treasure hunting and high-speed rides. Locate the buried treasure if you are daring enough or penetrate Aladdin’s hideaway for lots of surprises. Fantasyland is a place where Walt Disney’s vivid imagination comes to life. Attend a world musical tour and dance to the tune or follow Alice through her intriguing maze of passageways and hideaways. Or why don’t you whirl around in one of Mad Hatter’s giant tea cups?

Disneyland Park is not just a place where childhood dreams come to life. It is also a world of excitement where hearts beat faster and screams get louder. To add to this carnivalesque atmosphere of colour and mystery, the cast members of Disneyland Park created Main Street U.S.A., an area where you can chug your way on the Disneyland rail or ride on an old streetcar pulled by stately Percheron horses. If you have the money, you will find all sorts of Disneyland souvenirs and memorabilia in scores of shops scattered here and there along Main Street. Take with you back home an Indiana Jones hat or a Cinderella costume or a Disney doll, but make sure that the label with the words ‘made in Disneyland’ is clearly visible.

The Walt Disney Studios Park is mostly dedicated to Walt Disney movies or themes directly related to film making. However, one finds as well a couple of rollercoaster rides that are among the best in Disneyland. Don’t miss the Aerosmith rollercoaster that boasts excellent sound effects and awesome acceleration. Nearby, the stunt car show is a spectacular display of ultra-skilful driving manoeuvres that keep you on your toes not knowing what will happen next. Another rollercoaster ride on a turtle is amazingly thrilling; it becomes more thrilling when your turtle runs through long dark spaces and haunted hideaways. The excellent sound effects, thundering and explosions in particular, add to the eerie atmosphere

Before you leave the Walt Disney Studios Park, follow the queue to watch the Cine Magique, an interactive movie show that takes you back through hundred years of movie history. It is without doubt a dedication to our affection for the cinema and a special reminder of the great movies of the past

Information about Entry Tickets:

Tickets for entry to the parks can be bought on line from the Disneyland Park website: or from the ticket booths available near the gateway to each park.

Several tickets are available:
1 Day 1 Park Ticket for adults costs 51 euro.
1 Day Park Hopper Ticket for adults (suitable for both parks) costs 62 euro
2 Day Park Hopper Ticket for adults (suitable for both parks, any 2 days within 1 year) costs 112 euro
3 Day Park Hopper Ticket for adults (suitable for both parks, any 3 days within 1 year) costs 139 euro.
Discounted entry tickets are available for children aged 3 to 11. Children under age 3 are admitted free.

Disneyland Paris
Disney Village, 77700 Magny-le-Hongre

A Historical Gem of Renaissance Artworks

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by marif on April 30, 2012

The town of Fontainebleau is ideal for a short vacation or a weekend break in an atmosphere of tranquillity and peacefulness. If Paris is rich with cultural attractions and great for shopping, Fontainebleau is an appealing destination for nature lovers and environmentalists. If you want to enjoy the true atmosphere of Fontainebleau and revitalize your mind after the hustle and bustle of Paris, you are advised to stay here for at least two days, possibly three.

Unlike the formal landscaped gardens at Versailles, the wooded gardens and parks at Fontainebleau are less formal, less trimmed and more evocative of wild greenery. Within a short walkable distance from the chateau’s parks, the forest of Fontainebleau is a pleasant place for a stroll along one of the numerous marked trails, some of which are easily navigable in a couple of hours (referred to as petites randonnees de pays or PRP), others long enough to take you from Fontainebleau to nearby towns or villages (referred to as grandes randonnees de pays or GRP).

Frequent trains from Lyon station in Paris take about one hour to reach Fontainebleau’s Avon station. From here, you can take a local bus that links the station with central Fontainebleau and passes through Boulevard Magenta, one of the avenues that border the chateau’s gardens. To get a good orientation of the city before you make your way into the gardens, consider walking the two kilometres distance from the station to the chateau. As you exit the station, walk southwest on Boulevard Marechal Foch for about 10 minutes until you reach the crossroads. Continue straight on Rue Grande for a further 10 minutes and you will soon see one of the gates leading to the chateau’s gardens in front of you.

Fontainebleau’s tourist office is on Rue Royale, a short distance away from the chateau. It sells clear-cut maps of the gardens and provides free brochures with information about the chateau. Those who intend to walk in the forest are advised to lay their hands on one of the information guides that are for sale at the tourist office. ‘Trekking and Climbing in Fontainebleau’ is highly recommended since it lists all the marked walking trails in the area and the range of difficulties one encounters on the way. It also identifies spots suitable for climbing and gives details about their respective level of exertion. In addition to this, the tourist office sells tickets for entry to the National Museum of Prisons (guided tours only, 8 euro) and the Napoleonic Museum of Art and Military History (2.50 euro).

Most visitors start their trip of Fontainebleau with a stopover at the chateau and its surrounding parks and courtyards. Admission to the gardens is free and access is gained through one of several gateways located at intervals along the avenues that border the chateau’s gardens. Walking from the train station for 20 minutes, I came face to face with one gate that allowed entry to the Jardin de Diane, a good-sized garden cut across by scores of gravel passageways that are skirted with rows of hedging plants and bushes. The most appealing attraction within the garden is Diana’s fountain, the monumental centrepiece being a graceful figure of Diana, goddess of hunting, with one hand embracing a majestic stag. On the supporting pedestal, four hunting dogs gush forth jets of water. A symbol of Fontainebleau, the statue of Diana stands to demonstrate the great hunting potential the forest of Fontainebleau formerly enjoyed among French monarchs.

An arched passageway leads from the Jardin de Diane to the Jardin des Adieux, a lawned courtyard from where one can climb up via a magnificent double staircase to the palace. From here, Napoleon Bonaparte bid farewell to his aides on 18 April 1814 shortly before his first abdication. From here, another passageway leads to the informal Jardin Anglais, a huge unadorned green space embellished with numerous pathways that twist and turn between rare species of exotic trees. One pathway running east puts you straight near the Etang des Carpes, a huge artificial lake where shoals of carp abound. Visitors can hire a paddleboat and paddle around but beware…. fishing not allowed. On the small adjacent Cour de la Fontaine, one usually finds an open-air cafeteria selling, guess what?, drinks and light snacks.

East of the Etang des Carpes, the Grand Parterre sits on a lower level and can be reached via a flight of steps. Designed by Andre Le Notre during the reign of Louis XIV, it is a formal French-style garden with geometrically patterned lawns, hedgerows trimmed to the finest detail and colourful flowerbeds. A square-shaped ornamental pond occupies central stage and its majestic centrepiece is a graceful statue of the Roman emperor Tiberius.

Further east, the Grand Cascade, also designed by Le Notre is a splendid arched structure embellished with numerous niched statues. Water gushing out from hundreds of water jets that surround the fountain is directed towards the centrepiece – an eagle protecting its prey. The Grand Cascade leads to Fontainebleau’s main park, a lawned spot ideal for picnicking. Along one side of the park, a huge waterway called the Grand Canal, slopes gradually eastwards receiving the water that overflows from the numerous fountains and ponds scattered here and there within the gardens. To avoid flooding, this water is carried from here to the Seine through a complex underground system known as ‘exutoire’.

At some time or other during your visit, make sure to step inside the chateau to see its architectural treasures, paintings, décor and thousands of precious objects that have been preserved throughout the centuries. Although the chateau at Fontainebleau epitomizes seven centuries of the history of French royalty, it was never inhabited on a permanent basis by French monarchs. Used only as a temporary residence, particularly during the hunting seasons in spring and autumn, it was nonetheless one of France’s largest royal residences and one of the most richly decorated.

Entry to the chateau is through Cour des Adieux from where a double-horseshoe staircase leads to the elegant doorway. Visitors can only visit a few rooms but these are unquestionably the most outstanding both for their aesthetic beauty as well as for their historical value.

One room which is definitely a must-see is Galerie Francois I, a valuable gem of Renaissance architecture filled in with Mannerist-style mural decorations, stuccowork and sculpted bas-reliefs. The Florentine artist Rosso Fiorentino, later joined by the Bolognese painter Francesco Primaticcio was responsible for the design and implementation of all the ornamental work inside. Twelve magnificent fresco panels framed with elaborate stuccowork depict mythological narratives. Visitors seem to congregate near the ‘Nymph of Fontainebleau’ admiring the elongated figure and graceful look of the sea goddess. My favourite fresco shows the monarch in full dress holding a pomegranate. The stuccowork is dotted here and there with a repeated figure of a salamander, a symbolic emblem of King Francois I.

The Salle de Bal, a thirty-metres-long ballroom that offers outstanding views of the gardens from its huge windows is similarly decorated with more fresco panels and elegant marquetry flooring. While going around the ballroom, make an attempt to discover the monograms H & D thrown here and there among the decorations. H stands for the initial of Henri II who succeeded King Francois I, D is the initial of Diane de Poitiers, his lover.

One other room worthy of inspection is the Salle du Trone, a richly decorated hallway where the extravagant use of gold is mixed with shades of green and yellow to produce a wonderful composition of surprisingly appealing contrasts. The historical value of the Salle du Trone cannot be overlooked since it was here that Napoleon signed his first abdication document, a copy of which is also on display here. Within the State Apartments, the spectacular Chapelle de la Trinite is a historical gem, highly ornamented with late Renaissance paintings, frescoes and numerous bas-reliefs characterized by fine details and elegance. On the other hand, the Small Apartments are mostly reminiscent of Napoleon and contain collections from his personal belongings, his uniforms, swords and other war memorabilia.

Although Fontainebleau no longer welcomes French kings as it did for seven centuries, it remains nonetheless an impressive palace of great historical significance and magnificent Renaissance artworks. The surrounding parks and gardens impart an atmosphere of grandeur and stateliness to the complex. A stroll in the adjacent forest, particularly early in the morning is a pleasant way to end your magical tour of Fontainebleau.

Timetable for gardens:
Daily: November to February 9:00am to 5:00pm
Daily: March, April, October: 9:00am to 6:00pm
Daily: May to September: 9:00am to 7:00pm

Timetable for chateau:
Daily: October to May 9:30am to 5:00pm
Daily: June to September: 9:30am to 6:00pm

Chateau of Fontainebleau

Paris, France

Avez-vous vu Notre Dame?

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by marif on April 26, 2012

Further away from the Louvre embankment, the Seine becomes instantly wider as it bends southwards. It then branches out into two huge waterways, characterized by a number of imposing bridges that allow access from the Right Bank to the Left Bank. Anchored to the riverbed, two majestic islands occupy the space between the waterways.

Ile de la Cite is the larger of these islands and its superb attractions are definitely focal points for visitors. The smaller Ile St-Louis lies southeast of its larger sister but the two are interconnected by a picturesque bridge that is perfect for snapshooting the surrounding attractions. Ile St-Louis, particularly the area around Rue des Deux Ponts is a paradise for romantic amblers who want to get away from the crowds. Quiet, peaceful and solitary, the streets along Ile St-Louis abound nonetheless with specialized food shops (confiseries, boulangeries and patisseries), ice-cream parlours, boutiques and art galleries. The only place of worship on Ile St-Louis is the Eglise St-Louis en l’Ile, a small but graceful baroque edifice that I have always found closed except on one particular Sunday morning.

Neither quiet nor solitary, Ile de la Cite is the spot where all Paris visitors meet. Don’t expect however to find a restaurant that serves your favourite ‘table d’hote’ or a bar that offers your favourite ‘vin rouge’ on the wine list. Of course, people arrive here with expectations but such expectations are not concerned with good meals or French cocktails. These you can find five minutes away if you dare go over the bridge to St-Michel where restaurants and bars abound.

The reason for following the crowds and crossing the bridge to Ile de la Cite is without doubt the magnificent Cathedral of Notre Dame. It has become such a great landmark and such an intimate focus of Catholicism that local Parisians refer to it simply as ‘Notre Dame’. "Avez-vous vu Notre Dame?" asked me the lady receptionist at the hotel. "I have never seen Our Lady, Bernadette Soubirous did. But I’ve seen the Cathedral more than once" was my answer.

Why has the Cathedral of Notre Dame and its surroundings occupied central stage in Paris and became a top attraction? The answer to this question is given by Victor Hugo in his world-renowned romantic novel ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’.
"Each face, each stone of this venerable monument is not only a page of the history of the country, but also of the history of knowledge and art".

A living symbol of the eventful history of France since 1163 when the foundation stone was laid, the Cathedral of Notre Dame has experienced over the centuries a succession of awful times but some pleasant times as well.

One of the earliest blows the Cathedral suffered happened in the mid-sixteenth century when French protestants known as Huguenots, inspired by the writings of John Calvin revolted against the Roman Catholic Church. Having been a symbol of Catholicism since its inception, the Cathedral of Notre Dame was subjected to intensive rioting that caused structural damages to the building. In addition to this, scores of statues that decorated the Cathedral’s exterior were removed and shattered, considering them idolatrous images.

The second major blow arrived 100 years later during the reign of Louis XIV. In an effort to transform the Cathedral into an extravagant display of ornamentation, artists appointed for the purpose destroyed precious tombs and lots of stained-glass windows, particularly those on the side aisles.

However, the last setback the Cathedral experienced is unquestionably the greatest. This happened during the militant phase of the French Revolution in the last decade of the eighteenth century. A great deal of decorations, including sculptures, paintings and precious religious artefacts were either looted or damaged and destroyed. The Cathedral was stripped of its most valuable assets although the Gothic structure was in most places left untouched.

The historic characteristics of Notre Dame are one reason why throngs of people, more than ten million annually, step over its threshold. Obviously, today’s Cathedral is not the empty structure that was passed on to future generations after the Revolution. During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, various pleas for restoration were made by numerous French celebrities of the calibre of Ingres and Hugo. Restoration works that gradually retransformed the Cathedral into a masterpiece of architecture and a monumental opus of decorative sculptures started in 1844 and lasted for 23 years.

During this intensive restoration programme, all interior and exterior damaged decorations were replaced and additional structural works were completed. Worthy of mention from this restoration programme is the construction of two flat-roofed spires that impart to the front elevation a sense of height and majesty. Restored meticulously and filled with more interweaved stonework are the three splendid rose windows, the most superb is the one above the huge organ on the western elevation. The frequent use of contrasting colours, the various shades of bright green, intense red and blue in particular, is an extreme example of exquisite craftsmanship. Even some of the artistic elongated gargoyles you see protruding out of the north and south elevations date back to this period of restoration.

Not all visitors are fascinated by the long eventful history the Cathedral of Notre Dame has gone through throughout the ages but if you are not surprised by Notre Dame’s history, you will definitely stand in awe as you view the architectural details of the Cathedral. The west front elevation, recently cleaned from a black layer of eroding pollutants, is loaded with statues that depict the Old Testament kings of Israel while the deep triple portals covered with intricately sculpted bas-reliefs and more statues are a marvel of Gothic art.

Once inside, have a look at the graceful columns that support the ribbed vaulting, a structural design that is impressive both for its aesthetic beauty as well as for its architectural value. Go around the choir where rows of amazing wooden stalls are decorated with numerous statuettes and a profusion of intricately carved panels. Each of the chapels within the side transepts is an artistic ensemble of masterpieces in its own right and contains artworks and stained-glass windows that are definitely worthy of inspection.

The treasury in the eastern end of the south transept contains relics, monstrances, chalices, church ornaments and a wide range of church vestments, some of which dating back to the times of Louis XV. In addition to these, the treasury houses the ‘Holy Crown’ a wreath of thorns that is supposed to be the one that was placed on Christ’s head before crucifixion. Exhibited every first Friday of the month at 3:00pm, this is one revered item that attracts throngs of people, particularly Catholics who view the relic with respect and admiration.

After viewing the Cathedral, join the queue near the North Tower from where you can buy an entry ticket to climb up the long spiralling stairways to the top of the west façade. The panoramic view over most of central Paris is one reason for coming here. Other reasons include the exquisite architecture of the surrounding parapet that you can inspect in detail and the thirteen-tonne bell that adorns the South Tower.

Before crossing one of the bridges to go back to the Right Bank or the Left Bank, visitors are encouraged to visit the Palais de Justice, located a few metres west of the ‘Cite’ metro station. You enter the building through a huge gilded wrought-iron gate. From here, follow the signposted directions to the Ste-Chapelle, an exquisite gem of Gothic architecture. Decorated with fine stained-glass windows, it is a marvel few places of worship can match.

Admission to the Cathedral is free. Price for renting an audio-guide: 5 euro
Free guided tours to the Cathedral in English available on Wednesdays & Thursdays at 12:00 and on Saturday at 2:30pm

Admission to the Cathedral’s Treasury: 3 euro
Monday to Saturday: 9:30am to 6:00pm and Sunday: 1:30pm to 5:30pm

Admission to Notre Dame Towers: 7.50 euro
Summer timetable:
Monday to Friday: 9:30am to 7:30pm
Saturday & Sunday: 9:00am to 11:00pm
Winter timetable:
Daily: 10:00am to 5:30pm.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame
6, place du Parvis-de-Notre-Dame
Paris, France, 75004
+33 (1) 42 34 56 10

Hotel Eldorado: a gem north of the city centre

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by marif on April 23, 2012

Whenever I visit Paris, I try to find accommodation in an area where I’ve never been before. During my last visit, the charming area of Montmartre and Pigalle was my desired destination. So, from the city centre, I took metro line 12 to ‘Abbesses’ station from where I took to the street on foot looking for a hotel of my choice. As all independent adventurous travellers are aware, one joy of travelling is walking around to find out a restaurant, a hotel or an attraction about which you have read and reread in your favourite guidebook.

Most budget and midrange hotels in Montmartre were surprisingly full when I visited. With map in hand, I walked through Rue Aristide Bruant and Rue des Abbesses with no luck, although more than one bunch of stylish hotels and delightful trendsetters elbow for space here.

So, against all odds I walked back along Boulevard de Clichy for about 15 minutes until I reached Place de Clichy. This area, west of Montmartre abounds with hotels, and three-star comfort here is generally less expensive than pretentious two-star in Montmartre. After going round the area, I decided on Hotel Eldorado, an inexpensive hidden gem in a quiet area of the capital. Rue des Dames where the hotel is located is a long narrow walkway that is not entirely traffic-free. However, it allows for a good night’s sleep with ease since vehicles passing through the street are few and far between.

Hotel Eldorado is a simple old-style two-storey structure that was recently given a bright coat of light brown paint. The white louvred windows that run regularly across the length of the building and the wrought-iron lanterns that illuminate the spotless exterior add to the atmosphere of tranquillity and orderliness.

On making my way in towards the reception area, I confirmed my previous assumption that this simple building is loaded with character and oozes with old-world charm. A warm friendly welcome was given by the lady owner who explained that each of the 40 rooms the hotel comprised was a personalized affair and no room was decorated, painted or equipped like another. When I enquired about the price of a double, she said that the price should follow only after I become aware of what was available. So, she took me around to view five vacant double rooms from which I could choose my favourite.

Without hesitation, I opted for a double room on the first floor that overlooked a charming leafy courtyard complete with an ornamented elevated terrace. The price per night in high season was 80 euro but being September, this was immediately discounted to 70 euro. As is usual with three-star accommodation in Paris, the room price does not include breakfast which is optional and goes for 8 euro per person.

The room where I stayed was definitely redone quite recently. Painted in shades of yellow, mustard and brown, it was evocative of warmth and cosiness. The matching wall-to-wall carpeting and the bed covering, also in shades of yellow and brown added to the atmosphere.

The bathroom that seemed to be the hidden gem in a fairy tale was entirely spic and span. It was relatively spacious with full-size bath, a bidet and an enormous wash-hand basin. The towels were immaculately white and clean and definitely complemented the trim set-up of the room. The additional knickknacks that one usually requires were all there: hand soap, shower caps, shampoo, shaving cream, a pair of scissors, toothpaste and even two toothbrushes sealed hygienically in plastic bags.

The terraced bistro in the garden doubles as a wine bar and a breakfast room. Appropriately named ‘Bistro des Dames’, it lies within a beautiful shaded garden setting. Through its huge bay windows, one can get in touch with a diversity of flowers in bloom, hedging plants trimmed to the finest detail and a variety of hardy perennials. A perfect setting where one can enjoy a glass of wine or beer in an atmosphere of tranquillity and serenity.

‘Bistro des Dames’ is also the venue where breakfast is served daily from 7:30am to 11:00am. The ‘petit dejeuner’ is a simple continental affair of bread, butter, jam, cheese, coffee or tea and croissants. Being simple does not imply that the quality and the quantity of the servings are on the poor side or inadequate. When I visited, the simple items on the breakfast menu alternated between bread rolls and baguettes, croissants and brioches, ‘tartes aux fruits’ and ‘pains aux raisins’

This basic hotel is a real gem where one can enjoy a peaceful atmosphere in a comfortable setting. Although the hotel stands a 15 minutes walk away from the centre of Montmartre, its hidden out-of-centre location is more than compensated for by the price that is definitely appropriate for what the hotel offers.
Hotel Eldorado
18 Rue Des Dames
Paris, France, 75017
33 01 45 22 35 21

A Garden of Eden at Versailles

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by marif on April 20, 2012

Touring the magnificent interior of the palace for hours has left me breathless for two reasons. There are so many works of art to see and so many historical facts to grasp that a complete tour of the palace is a real feat of endurance. In addition to this, I was physically exhausted after a three-hour walk along extensive passageways between rows of exhibits in the midst of a constant flow of visitors.

The redeeming factor is the vast chateau gardens, hundreds of hectares of leafy grounds, ornamental lakes and water canals on which you would probably have looked through one of the windows of the Hall of Mirrors. The view from here stretches out as far as the horizon but lacks the exceptional details that make the chateau gardens at Versailles an exquisite place to revitalise your weary bones and recharge your mind.

To do justice to this meticulous green landscape of stately avenues, manicured lawns and patterned beds of blooming flowers, one needs at least two days or possibly three. To explore exhaustively and at leisure all the tempting nooks and hideaways that characterize this extensive space of natural topography, one needs to come here more than once.

As expected, my first visit followed immediately after the tour of the palace. Exiting from a back door, I found myself on an elevated stone-paved platform from where I could figure out the whole stretch of waterways that break up the main avenue into two wide gravel-covered walkways. A veritable portrait-pretty scene that invigorates your senses and pushes you to commence your tour.

I knew from the start that I couldn’t walk around and explore the gardens in their totality in just a couple of hours. So I decided to get a good orientation today and then come again tomorrow. The domineering French-style landscaped gardens sit on an elevated zone that progressively slopes down towards the Grand Canal. This exquisite Garden of Eden is unquestionably one of the major attractions at Versailles. Divided by elegant gravel passageways that run between rows of geometrically designed flower beds, bushes of roses trimmed to the finest detail and ornamental hedging plants, it is a perfect garden layout that reflects the skill and artistic capability of Andre Le Notre, the designer responsible for the set-up in the days of Louis XIV. To enhance this colourful display of flowers and greenery, elegant marble statues on pedestals were introduced here and there as a symbolic expression of beauty and splendour.

Taking the imposing stairway bordered by rows of more marble statues, I climbed down to a lower level that is distinguished by two wide avenues, separated from each other by the Grand Canal, a sixty-two-metres wide waterway that extends westwards towards the Grand Parc. These slightly sloping avenues are bordered with rows of manicured trees and dotted with hand-sculpted marble statues, most of which represent personalities from Greek or Roman mythology. It is not advisable to examine each and every statue although every one is an artistic monument worthy of note in its own right. But to look into the details of each takes time and it is impossible to do so in one or two visits.

Walking westwards, one soon comes across an exceptional water pond named after Apollo, the sun god and the main personality in the monumental cluster of statues that embellish the centre of the fountain. Apollo’s chariot pulled by four rearing horses and surrounded by Tritons emerging triumphantly out of the water is a monumental focus of attraction. The persistent throngs of people and tourist groups watching and poring over the details bear evidence to the beautiful artistic composition of this fountain.

Almost 800 metres further west from the Apollo fountain, the Grand Canal and its bordering avenues are interrupted by the Petit Canal, another waterway that crosses the Grand Canal at right angles and stretches out 500 metres on each side. The wide walkways that circumscribe the point of intersection are adorned with collections of statues that are among the most imposing and inspiring within the entire gardens of Versailles.

Walking along one arm of the Petit Canal for about 20 minutes, I was greeted by a miniature palace, a single-storey pink marble structure located within a graceful garden setting filled in with fragrant flowering plants and thousands of hardy perennials. By now I was running for time and I decided to revisit this place tomorrow. So I decided to walk back along the other side pathway of the Petit Canal towards the Grand Canal. Resuming my walk westwards, I finally reached the westernmost end of the main axis of the park where I came across a hive of activity. It was a warm summer’s day in September and so groups of people were getting ready to board a rented paddleboat for a ride over the water. Tens of paddleboats were geared up to start their journey along the Grand Canal and its transversal branches. Likewise, Louis XIV and his favourite ‘madame’ sailed in gilded gondolas on the waters of the Grand Canal joined by preferred court officials.

After a quick glance at the decorative features of the octagonal fountain that dominates the end section of the Grand Canal, I embarked on my way back wandering down the long grand avenue on the other side of the waterway. By now, most visitors were walking back towards the palace and most side paths and hidden alcoves within sight were almost devoid of people. On reaching the Apollo fountain, it was almost dark and so I made my way with haste towards the grand stairway that leads to the landscaped garden from where I found my way out. Conscious of many hidden groves, fountains, ornamental lakes and sculptures I missed, I was adamant to come again tomorrow.

I started early as soon as the gates to the gardens were opened. Admission is free and visitors can go into the gardens without buying an entry ticket for the palace. However, to set your eyes on the sumptuous interior furnishings of the three main palatial outbuildings that are scattered apart along different spots of the gardens, one needs an entry ticket. Combination tickets that allow entry to the palace and the outbuildings are sold on line from the chateau’s website. However, for 10 euro, one can also buy a separate ‘Trianon ticket’ that allows admission to the outbuildings only. Such tickets are also available on line or at entrance A or conveniently at the ticket office adjacent to the Grand Trianon.

The souvenir shop on the ground floor of the palace sells clear-cut plans of the gardens and it is advisable to lay your hands on a copy before you start your tour. With plan in hand, I took the north pathway towards Neptune’s fountain, a gigantic artificial pool whose beautiful centrepiece depicts the sea god Neptune upheld by his wife and other surrounding mythological personalities amidst waves of sea creatures and twisting plants.

One of the pathways that emerges from here is bordered with lime trees and leads to an arboretum of exotic plantations. Before long, I reached the Bosquet du Dauphin, a forested hideaway that embraces a graceful fountain embellished with a central dolphin-like creature gushing forth jets of water. A maze of unadorned secondary pathways took me to the Bosquet des Bains d’Apollon, another secret out-of-sight romantic cave-like setting that houses clusters of statues related in some way or another to the sun god Apollo. Not to be missed is the grand group of statues that depicts six posing sea nymphs nurturing Apollo.

I soon reached the delightful gardens of the Grand Trianon. This pink marble colonnaded structure standing between a magnificent courtyard and French-style gardens has a wonderful interior, its architecture influenced by the Italian style that was predominant in Italy in the last two decades of the seventeenth century. The furniture however does not date back to the times of Louis XIV, although the king frequently used the palace as a refuge from the rigid etiquette of the royal court. Most of the furnishings and decorations were recreated during the lifetime of Napoleon I and reflects his Empire style.

Further west, I came across a much smaller palace located in the middle of a classic landscaped garden. Several wandering pathways, bubbling streams and rustic bridges impart an air of serenity and romanticism to the complex. This is the Petit Trianon, a small refined palace where Queen Marie-Antoinette often returned to escape the rigours of the royal court.

Further away from the Petit Trianon and tucked away amidst wooded areas, the Hameau de la Reine stands in the middle of an English-style garden laid out for Marie-Antoinette. This pastoral building where Marie-Antoinette pursued the simple pleasures of life consists of several thatched cottages and includes a mill complete with rotating blades and a fully equipped dairy farm.

Opening times for chateau gardens:
April to October: 9:00am to sunset
November to March: 8:00am to 6:30pm

Gardens of Versailles
West of the Palace
Versailles, France

An echo of French aristocracy

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by marif on April 16, 2012

The extravagant living and the bourgeois lifestyle of the former French royalty, the glory and luxury that surrounded the former French nobility and high-court officials cannot be manifested better than within the opulent chambers of the Chateau de Versailles, the grandest and most notorious chateau in France. Built in the seventeenth century as a symbol of the military power of France and as a display of French supremacy in Europe, this gigantic complex of palatial buildings, stately gardens and elegant terraces is unquestionably a must-see destination for any visitor who gets enthralled by outstanding rooms, sumptuous decorations, gilded furniture and Renaissance artworks.

Although the word ‘Versailles’ is synonymous with the chateau and its vast adjoining gardens, one has to be aware that Versailles is in actual fact an affluent suburb of Paris, located 20 kilometres southwest of the capital. Having a population of 85 thousand, Versailles is an administrative centre and provides employment for its inhabitants mostly in the service sector. Although the city is surrounded by picturesque countryside and wooded hills, the main attraction is definitely the historical chateau for which the city is renowned. However, a quick look at the grid of symmetrical avenues that run uniformly throughout the city is also recommended. The bourgeois atmosphere and the chic ambience can be felt in every street and at every corner.

From central Paris, the best way to reach the chateau at Versailles is to take the RER C5 line from ‘St Michel Notre Dame’ or ‘Invalides’ towards ‘Versailles Rive Gauche’ station which is only a short stroll from the chateau. ‘Versailles Chantiers’, served by RER C8 is further south, and from this station, one has to walk about 40 minutes to reach the main entrance to the chateau. An alternative option is to take one of the several daily SNCF trains from Montparnasse station in Paris to ‘Versailles Chantiers’.

Once you arrive at ‘Versailles Rive Gauche’ station, walk north along Avenue General de Gaulle for a couple of minutes until you reach Avenue de Paris. A left turn on Avenue de Paris brings you immediately near the Versailles Tourist Office from where you can observe the massive front elevation of the chateau rising from the ground in all its glory some 500 metres further west.

The best way to buy an entry ticket is on line from the chateau’s website. The ticket you print at home provides a worthwhile alternative to staying behind a long queue waiting your turn. Visitors with an entry ticket print-out can proceed immediately to entrance A from where they are guided towards the tour of their choice. One can opt to buy one of four different entry tickets:
1. Known as a ‘passport’, this full ticket costing 18 euro comes complete with a multilingual audio-guide and allows entry to the King’s Grand Apartment, the Queen’s Grand Apartment, the Hall of Mirrors, the Council Room, other important chambers in the palace, the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon, the Marie-Antoinette Estate and all permanent and temporary exhibitions open on the day of visiting.
2. The ‘palace ticket’ complete with multilingual audio-guide costs 15 euro. This tour of the palace allows entry to the King’s Grand Apartment, the Queen’s Grand Apartment, the Hall of Mirrors, the Council Room, other important chambers in the palace and all permanent and temporary exhibitions open on the day of visiting.
3. The ‘Trianon ticket’ costs 10 euro and allows entry to the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon and the Marie-Antoinette Estate.
4. The ‘guided-tour ticket’ costs 16 euro and provides visitors with a live commentary and allows entry to the private apartments of Louis XV and Louis XVI, the Royal Opera, the Royal Chapel and all the important chambers in the palace, including the King’s Grand Apartment and the Queen’s Grand Apartment.

The ‘guided-tour ticket’ allows entry to most of the rooms of the palace, some of which can never be visited otherwise. These include the Royal Chapel, a two-storey edifice with baroque and Gothic features that comes complete with a richly ornamented central gallery reserved solely for the king and his family and side galleries reserved for the ladies of the royal court. The extravagant use of marble and gold and the numerous paintings and sculptures that stand here as a symbol of the divine power of the monarchy transform this place of worship into a small but unique museum of classic French art. Equally interesting both for their historical value as well as for the artistic wall coverings and admirable period furniture are the Apartments of the Prince and Princess and the Apartment of the Marquise de Pompadour. History buffs should definitely go for the ‘guided-tour ticket’ since the live commentary accompanying the guided tour is a detailed step-by-step interactive exposition of all the historical aspects that moulded the history of the French royalty in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, particularly in relation to the events and personalities that affected the development of the chateau at Versailles. Three cheers to the expert guide whose words of wisdom made my visit more interesting and appealing than expected.

Visitors with a ‘passport’ or a ‘palace ticket’ have to go around on their own with the help of the audio-guide. It is advisable to reset the three basic functions (volume, language, start tour) of your audio-guide before you take the steps to the first floor from where the tour begins since no help whatsoever is available once you are upstairs.

Your tour starts with the King’s Grand Apartment, a seven-room monument of artistic splendour and a symbol of royal power and authority. The first room you visit is the Hercules drawing-room, a grand salon decorated with a huge painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Veronese. To complete the picture of royal power, another huge composition on the ceiling shows Hercules, a symbol of physical strength, might and absolutism.

The Room of Abundance follows. As the name itself indicates, this room was formerly used as a place for hosting distinguished guests in an atmosphere of lavish amounts of wine and refreshments. The grand table with silver vases and precious artworks on display was used more to impress guests than for anything else.

From here, visitors proceed to the Venus salon, an elegant baroque drawing-room that is heavily ornamented with marble pilasters, colonnaded recesses, intricate mouldings and delightful sculptures. Equally adorned is the Diana salon next door. On looking closely at the painting compositions on the ceiling, one easily concludes that Charles Le Brun who was responsible for all the ornamental works in these rooms, was heavily influenced by famous Italian artists of the Renaissance. Note the figure of Venus on the ceiling of the Venus salon, characterized by the ‘sfumato’ style prevalent in Italy in the seventeenth century.

The four other similarly ornamented drawing-rooms that follow contain ostentatious displays of magnificent wall coverings, marble statues, intricately carved window frameworks and scores of paintings. Of special interest is the Mercury salon, a small drawing-room that for several years served as the bedchamber of Louis XIV, the king whose reign was one of the longest in history. While going around the Apollo salon, don’t miss the allegorical painting by Charles de la Fosse in the western cove, a glorious mythological picture that depicts the building of the port at Misenum.

After a tour of the Kings’ Grand Apartment, visitors step inside the Hall of Mirrors, an extravagant showcase of gigantic proportions that occupies the western façade of the chateau and looks out onto the magnificent Versailles gardens. The sumptuous gilded arched ceiling painted by Charles Le Brun depicts a series of thirty artistic compositions that illustrate the glorious historic war victories of Louis XIV. Rows of crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling while rows of gilded statues standing on pedestals hold lanterns to enhance the beauty of the marble pilasters behind. Hundreds of mirrors that reflect this abundance of light fill in the arched wall opposite the windows, adding to the splendour of the place.

An open arch in the Hall of Mirrors gives access to the Council Room, adjacent to which one finds the King’s private bedchamber. The opulent décor of the gilded balustrade that separates the bed alcove from the rest of the chamber stands out for its magnificent gold and silver drapery on a contrasting crimson background.

The last section of your visit takes you to the Queen’s Grand Apartment. Of particular historical importance is the queen’s bedchamber where most of the items and furniture you see were either recovered after the French Revolution or else reproduced later since the originals were stolen or sold in auctions.

The stairs from here take you to the souvenir shop on the ground floor. The items for sale range from books about the palace to bronze busts of Louis XIV, from wall posters in carton tubes to T-shirts with the words: ‘J’aime Versailles’ or ‘Le Grand Versailles’.

Palace of Versailles (Chateau de Versailles)
20 Km Sw Of Paris
Versailles, France
01 30 83 78 00

Science made easy through discovery

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by marif on April 12, 2012

Your knowledge of science may be very limited or significantly small. Possibly, you have never been attracted by scientific discoveries, technical ingenuity and creativity. Maybe science has never appealed to your senses since you left school a decade ago.

In spite of all this, the Palais de la Decouverte in Paris may still be your hotspot for a day, a magnetic charm that keeps you entranced for hours, a fairy-tale experience that satisfies your obscure inquisitiveness, an answer to questions you always wanted to ask but were incessantly afraid of asking.

The science museum in Paris is not like other science museums worldwide. As the name of the building inside which the museum is housed indicates, it is a grand school laboratory where trialling leads to discovery. The emphasis here is not on extending one’s knowledge through the observation of ready-made equipment; neither is it through lectures or power-point presentations. The museum organizers believe that the exhibits here ought to be interesting and stimulating enough as to awaken the senses of visitors who dare stop and get involved. Getting involved is the start of a journey that leads to experimentation and successful results. At the forefront of this self-learning journey of scientific discovery, the museum aims at making science learning fun and entertaining.

Located on Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 8th district, it is easily accessible by metro or RER from anywhere in Paris. The closest metro station is ‘Champs Elysees Clemenceau’ from where a short walk westwards on Avenue du General Eisenhower leads one directly to the museum. The closest RER station is ‘Invalides’ located on the Left Bank of the Seine. From this station, one has to cross Pont Alexandre III to the Right Bank before proceeding towards Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt where the museum is located.

Palais de la Decouverte constitutes part of the huge majestic structure of the Grand Palais. In 1937, an international exposition associated with science and technology was held in the west wing of the Grand Palais. In view of its outright success, this temporary showcase of eclectic scientific topics was not dismantled but was gradually extended and enlarged with interactive models, hands-on experiments and on-going investigations related to the living world. Responsible for the layout and set-up was none other than the 1926 Nobel Prize winner for Physics Jean Perrin who assigned himself the task of creating a means by which science is popularized and becomes accessible to the general public and possibly understandable by all.

The edifice that houses the museum is itself a great artistic composition that delights and pleases scientists and non-scientists, children and adults alike. The interior of this wonderful palace is richly decorated. Particular decoration abounds along the elegant staircase, the round corridor on the first floor and the dome. The ornamentation that wraps up the dome-like ceiling and some wall sections consists mostly of intricate symmetrical designs that incorporate curves, geometric patterns, leaves, flowers and animal shapes. All this ornamental work that is unquestionably appropriate to a science cultural centre is still one of the museum’s attractive features even after 75 years of its inception.

The interactive exhibits that fill in most of the floor space within the museum are dedicated to at least six science-related themes, each theme enfolding a range of interrelated subjects presented in a way that inspires investigations, experimentation and discovery.

A large space on the ground floor is dedicated to the world of animals with emphasis on practical research in relation to animal communication. All this becomes more comprehensible once you participate actively in related games that explain how and to what extent mammals use their eyesight and their sense of smell or taste. Evolution of the animal kingdom is the next step, again illustrated through a series of pragmatic games in which you can get absorbed for hours. The reaction of insects to variation in temperature or humidity or light can be investigated through a series of hands-on experiments in which you turn a knob to change the physical condition of a living habitat in view of observing changes in insect behaviour.

Permanent exhibition space in a dark room on the first floor is devoted to Newton’s experiments with light. You can as well repeat Newton’s experiments at leisure. Investigate how incident light rays are reflected from a plane mirror or how visible rays are refracted through a huge glass block. Learn how light rays behave after passing through a diffraction grating or view the projection of a rainbow you have created in the absence of rainfall.

The Acoustics room nearby is equally interactive, offering numerous investigations related to sound. You can indulge in a series of experiments concerned with the analysis of simple harmonics or you can investigate how the length of an organ pipe affects the pitch of the note emitted.

Awarding visitors with a grand view of the ground floor layout, the veranda-style corridor on the first floor is mostly dedicated to geoscience with emphasis on climate change, evolution of the earth, the step-by-step development of vegetation and the gradual appearance of different species of animals on our planet. All this is brought into action through on-the-spot investigative research and scores of interactive activities.

The section about the atmosphere deals mostly with the factors that influence climate, air currents and air temperature. The problems of air pollution, excess carbon dioxide and ozone depletion are dealt with in a series of on-going activities that are able to excite and inspire any visitor who dares to get involved.

Visitors who are still apprehensive to touch and get engaged in activities on their own can still learn in an atmosphere of fun and excitement if they dare to attend one of the virtual shows that are held on a regular basis in the museum. The ‘Space Odyssey’, a projected simulation in 3D of two space missions is a fun trip in deep space. A ‘Voyage into a Cell’ is a film in 3D that takes participants into the core of a living cell to discover its complex structure and its exquisite beauty. The ‘Electrostatic Demonstration’ held several times daily on a regular basis charges enthusiastic visitors with excessive high voltage if they dare touch the terminal of a powerful electrostatic generator. The sparking effect is evident for everybody to see and enjoy.

The science learning programme provided by the museum is further enhanced through several active workshops that are organized by real scientists who take the time to carry out experiments with the direct involvement of the audience. The themes covered range from forensic science to solid geometry, from odours and perfumes to sound and vibrations, from genetic science and heredity to DNA.

While walking aimlessly around the museum, I came across one such workshop that caught my attention. Conducted in French, the workshop consisted of a demonstration with liquid nitrogen, followed by hands-on activities that involved the audience. Although my knowledge of French is limited, I could very easily figure out what was happening. Even very young children were proactively involved in the experiment. The participating public, including myself, put numerous questions to the conducting scientist who carried out further experiments and gave additional information.

When I came across the circular ‘pi room’ on the first floor, I stopped to glance at the value of pi, written to 707 digits on the frieze that circumscribes the dome-like ceiling. While here, I was handed over ten collapsible 3D shapes and was involved with discovering a mathematical formula that relates the number of edges with the number of surfaces and vertices. After an enjoyable time of trialling and investigation, I succeeded in finding out the formula: edges + 2 = surfaces + vertices.

Before leaving the museum, pay an additional fee of 3.5 euro to enter the Planetarium and come face to face with a diversity of celestial phenomena projected on the fifteen-metres-wide domed ceiling. See the star-studded night sky; observe how our planet spins on its axis and rotates around the sun; get enthusiastic about the planets of our solar system; learn how a solar system is formed when a new star is born.
Daily shows lasting 45 minutes start at 11:30am, 2:00pm, 3:15pm and 4:30pm.

Museum opens from Tuesday to Saturday: 9:30am to 6:00pm
Sundays & Public Holidays: 10:00am to 7:00pm

Ticket for museum excluding planetarium: Adults: 7 euro
Students/senior citizens: 4.5 euro

Palais de la Découverte
Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt
Paris, France, 75008
+33 1 56 43 20 21

A Mecca for artists and art lovers

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by marif on April 9, 2012

All the world knows that the Musee du Louvre sits on a huge stretch of land in …guess where?... but those who have yet never put their feet inside do not know that the Louvre is mostly filled in with foreign masterpieces with only a minority of purely original contributions from native French artists. Prehistoric art dating as far back as 3000BC, Greek and Roman antiquities, Islamic art, Italian paintings, drawings and graphics and collections of ‘objets d’art’ are all well represented and one needs a lifetime to get acquainted with all the exhibition halls and the treasures within.

When compared to the vast number of items that make up these colossal collections, French artworks are somewhat poorly represented. This does not in any way imply that one cannot view paintings and works of art that were conceived and designed by some of the world’s greatest French artists. But on looking closely at such items, one easily comes to a conclusion that most French works exhibited at the Louvre are highly influenced by Italian art schools, particularly those whose roots and origin lie in the Renaissance era. The influence of Italian art on French artworks is evident not just where paintings and drawings are concerned but also in furniture design, porcelain or enamelled ornaments and other ‘objets d’art’. As a matter of fact, some French works handmade by master artists or craftsmen for the French royalty or high-court officials seem to be a replication of works that are currently exposed in museums or church treasuries in Venice, Florence and Rome.

This does not in any way downgrade the reputation of the Louvre as the world’s top art museum; nor does it account for the fact that some visitors leave the museum tired and unsatisfied after a full day of sightseeing. Before coming here it is essential to understand that the exhibition space is so vast and the exhibits so numerous that it is impossible to see more than a fraction of this great museum in just one visit. All visitors, whether they are lovers of art or not, will definitely come here to look for the world’s greatest masterpieces. What’s the significance of a visit to the Louvre after all if it does not give one the chance to get a glimpse of the particular smile of Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’? Why should you miss the armless statue of the goddess ‘Aphrodite’ even if classic Greek art is not your realm of the artistic world? Why should Caravaggio’s ‘Death of the Virgin’ scarcely attract your passing glance, although you know that this is a fine example of Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro?

To avoid missing the finest masterpieces, to have the opportunity to see some of the greatest exhibits, the Louvre organizers have posted signs in key positions to direct visitors towards the foremost attractions. Though signposting is unquestionably helpful and recommendable, one must be aware that walking around in search of the signposted masterpieces is physically exhausting and time consuming.

A better alternative is to obtain the free leaflet ‘Louvre Plan/Information’ from the information desk or museum bookshop in the split-level public area under the Grande Pyramide or from the underground shopping centre of the Carrousel du Louvre. Once you examine carefully the graphical representation of each of the museum’s sections and get to know what exhibits each section contains, then you need to be selective and choose a section that appeals most to your artistic tastes and preferences. It is important to sacrifice any fantasies you may have of seeing more than one section in the course of one visit.

A diagrammatic map of the Louvre is not easy to understand and attempting to find your whereabouts once you are inside is a great feat of endurance. Once you are near the glass-and-steel Grande Pyramide on Cour Napoleon waiting patiently for your turn to buy an entry ticket, take your time to inspect the outside baroque architecture of the former royal residences inside which thousands of exhibits are waiting the daily flow of visitors. Try to get a good orientation before you make your way in since the three main wings are somehow or other interconnected and it’s easy to leave one wing and find yourself in the next. The interconnecting corridors are themselves devoted to exhibits, making your tour of the Louvre more intriguing and complicated.

Visitors need to use the ‘Louvre Plan/Information’ leaflet to avoid wasting time and choose wisely. As one can easily deduce from the plan, each of the three wings is a huge four-storey edifice and contains exhibition space which one can visit.

The massive building on the eastern side of Cour Napoleon is the Sully Pavilion. Architecturally magnificent, being one of the most influential classical palaces ever built in Europe, this medieval edifice houses two complete floors of historical treasures, many of which are artistic remnants of ancient Greek and Egyptian civilizations. The third floor (in French, deuxieme etage and not troisieme etage), is dedicated to French paintings, the majority of which are highly influenced by Italian artists of the calibre of Titian, Mantegna, Tintoretto and Caravaggio. Most French artists, symbolized through a considerable number of paintings in the Louvre, studied art and worked in Italy for long periods of time and consequently their work adopted styles and subjects that were prevalent in Italian painting at that time. The paintings of the French artists Nicolas Poussin, Charles Le Brun and Jean Fouquet indicate unmistakably this Italian influence through the use of ‘Caravaggism’, a style that embodies the application of chiaroscuro to traditional subjects and religious pictures. Even Eugene Delacroix who painted hundred years later drew his inspiration from Venetian painters and adopted Michelangelo’s style in most of his paintings.

The wing south of the Grande Pyramide is the Denon Pavilion and its elongated extension is the Pavillon de Flore. Most of its interior windows overlook Quai du Louvre, a long stretch on the Right Bank of the Seine. This wing is unquestionably a hotspot for visitors, particularly for those in search of famous Italian and Spanish paintings and sculptures. But first-time visitors should be aware that in addition to these masterpieces, the Denon Wing has a complete floor dedicated to the ancient Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Nowhere can one find such a detailed and comprehensive exposition of non-European artworks related to early civilizations.

On reaching the top of the staircase, you will come across a graceful headless sculpture that dates back to the third century BC. This is the ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace’, a celebrated marble statue of the Greek goddess Nike that stands here as a symbol of power and dominance. The world-renowned statue of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, nicknamed the ‘Venus de Milo’ also forms part of the ancient Greek collections housed in the Denon Wing. It is an armless larger-than-life statue of the Greek goddess of love and beauty, regarded as one of the finest classical sculptures in existence.

The throngs of visitors one sees going up and down the staircase are probably in search of the museum’s most famous painting, the ‘Mona Lisa’, also called ‘La Gioconda’. It hangs directly opposite the door of a particular exhibition hall where one also finds other famous paintings of Italian origin, the most notorious being ‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’ by Veronese. Though small, probably just 77 by 53 cm, the ‘Mona Lisa’ attracts crowds of visitors who flick their eyes through the painting with awe and respect. I have heard more than one visitor saying with emotion: "I’ve seen it".

The huge structure that borders the north side of Cour Napoleon is the Richelieu Pavilion. Its extension, the Pavillon de Marsan stretches out to the Jardin des Tuileries. This section of the Louvre is often less crowded than either the Sully Pavilion or the Denon Pavilion and rewards visitors with a better chance to view the exhibits at leisure. The world’s most renowned masterpieces are indisputably found in the Sully or Denon Pavilions but the Richelieu Pavilion contains nonetheless one attraction that definitely satisfies the taste of architecture connoisseurs and lovers of antiques. Magnificent ornamented ceilings, crystal chandeliers of gigantic proportions, gilded mirrors, rich period furniture, Limoges dinner sets and solid silver cutlery furnish the sumptuous rooms of the apartments of Napoleon III – certainly a reflection of his luxurious style of living.

Two exhibition halls in the Richelieu Pavilion are devoted to decorative arts that date back to the middle ages while other halls contain Flemish and Dutch paintings. Although no world renowned artworks are found here, this section is equally interesting since it contains a selection of paintings made by artists of the calibre of Van Dyck, Rubens and Rembrandt.

If you get tired after hours of sightseeing, the Richelieu Pavilion offers seating within two glass-covered courtyards, the Cour Marly and the Cour Puget. You will be sitting amidst wonderful garden statues that provide an ambience of grandeur and stateliness.

Musée du Louvre
99, rue de Rivoli
Paris, France, 75001
+33 (1) 40 20 51 51

Chartres deserves more than a short visit

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by marif on April 2, 2012

One cannot do justice to this medieval city awashed with tradition and history for ages unless one stays here for at least a couple of days. One cannot be fair to the white stonework, now blackened with age and in some cases eroded by chemical activity unless one has enough time to taste the craftsmanship and digest the artistic masterpieces that were handmade by generations of masons, artists, sculptors and stained-glass makers. One can never feel the veritable atmosphere of tranquillity, awe, holiness and mysticism that Chartres imparts unless one sleeps here.

The peaceful atmosphere, the feeling of tradition and antiquity, the religiosity and fervent devotion that are still living symbols of Chartres contrast strongly with the hustle and bustle of Paris, and yet Chartres is only 60 miles southwest of the capital. Easily and frequently accessible by train from Paris Montparnasse station, Chartres can be reached from Paris in about 70 minutes. The train station and bus station in Chartres are near each other on Place Paul Senard, a commercial area that abounds with boutiques, restaurants and offices. From either station, a ten-minute walk southeast on Avenue Jehan de Beauce leads straight to Place Chatelet. From here, Rue de Cheval Blanc brings you in a few minutes to Place de la Cathedrale where the tourist office and most of the attractions are located.

Once here, in front of this gigantic structure of religious symbolism, architectural achievement and monumental glory, one cannot help feeling one’s successes in life, whatever they are, dwarfed and minusculed when compared to this impressive place of worship. What you see in front of you is the predominating west front elevation, a gracefully ornamented structure that is 100 years older than the rest of the present cathedral. An earlier Romanesque basilica stood here before the present Gothic edifice was built but this was destroyed by fire in 1194. The west frontal view you see from Place de la Cathedrale was not destroyed and was fittingly incorporated into the new building. Perfectly preserved in its original plan and details, it includes exquisite sculpted triple portals that architecture connoisseurs will find interesting both for their unusual stone carvings as well as for the way Romanesque and Gothic features are incorporated jointly in the design.

On getting closer to the west front, one notices the elegant and elongated statues of Old Testament personalities that fill in the colonnaded recesses of the west front triple doorways. Explore as well the heavily-sculpted tympanums above the doorways, particularly the scene of the Last Judgement depicted on the central tympanum. The sculptures on the stonework that frames the tympanums and the bas-reliefs on the friezes just above the doorways are surprisingly detailed and unbelievably intact. The three-section Romanesque windows above the portals and the huge rose window on the uppermost level, filled in with a skeleton of interweaved stonework complete the picture.

One architectural curiosity that renders the west front of Chartres Cathedral asymmetrical is the dissimilar structural design of the two bell towers. Having escaped the devastating fire of 1194, the Old Bell Tower, known as the Clocher Vieux has plain Romanesque features with no intricate carvings. The New Bell Tower, the Clocher Neuf, adorned with an intricately carved Gothic spire was built in the sixteenth century and is more artistically and aesthetically dominating. The Old Tower is closed to visitors but you can climb up the long spiral stairway to the viewing platform of the New Tower for a wonderful view. Admire from here the Cathedral’s vast copper roof, turned green by weathering. Besides a view of Chartres with its twisting river below and its underlying rows of old houses, one can view the landscape further away. I visited when the weather was fine and the visibility perfect and I could get a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, 60 miles away.

Equally artistic and impressive with regards to design, architectural details and Gothic features, the north and south elevations of the Cathedral at Chartres are an extreme example of magnificence and symbolism. The deep covered porch that shelters the three doorways of the north transept is loaded with statues of Old Testament prophets on the side archways and with statues of the Virgin Mary and her newly born son on the central arch. Similar to the north elevation, the south elevation has another deep porch sheltering the doorways. This obviously extends the space available for sculptural embellishment and other additional ornamental work. In fact this three-arched porch is again loaded with hundreds of scenes from Christ’s life, passion and crucifixion together with secondary scenes that expose in detail the life of the apostles and early Christian martyrs.

To do credit to this colossus of architecture and magnificence, one must necessarily spend at least two hours to visit its interior. The unbroken view from the western end from where you enter to the choir at the eastern side gives an impression of spaciousness and vastness. Turn your eyes towards the plain-based clustered columns that support the ribbed vaulting and then direct your eyes towards the ceiling where these ribbed vaults meet. You cannot but confirm that this three-storey structure is an edifice of gargantuan proportions and imposing dimensions.

But the most impressive section of the Cathedral’s interior is the vaulted ambulatory that encloses the choir and the sanctuary. Encircled by a magnificently carved screen sculpted in stone by master craftsmen and embellished by a series of panelled scenes from the life of Christ, it is one of the most impressive works of art in the Cathedral. Around the ambulatory, one finds three domed chapels of considerable size and several other smaller chapels, each one containing particular attractions and several artefacts worthy of note.

The highlight of your visit to the Cathedral at Chartres must necessarily include an inspection of the wonderful richly-coloured stained-glass windows that illuminate its interior with an array of coloured radiance. You can never see them all since the Cathedral houses 176 windows spread on two levels and around the ambulatory. Definitely worthy of inspection for their historical value are three windows that date back to the Romanesque era and are installed under the rose window on the west façade; another Romanesque window known as the ‘Belle Verriere’ is found along the ambulatory aisle adjacent to the south transept.

The windows on the lower level, each composed of a central wide panelled section and two smaller panelled sections at the sides are the most beautiful. The blue tone repeated in most panels and known as Chartres blue is enhanced with traces of red. This together with other contrasting colours, bright yellow and green in particular, render the Biblical narratives they represent more vivid and comprehensible. On no account should one miss the two rose windows that light up the north and south transepts. These are definitely a superb example of exquisite craftsmanship, particularly in the use and manipulation of vivid colours.

If you stay in Chartres for more than one day, you will usually get the opportunity to attend an organ recital or an evening of choir singing in the Cathedral. The sound is ethereal, the atmosphere is one of awe and mysticism.

Summer nights on Place de la Cathedrale are special and unforgettable. The square facing the west front of the Cathedral changes into a venue of coloured shadows and moving reflections when rotating lights scan the façade, creating a fantastic effect and an ambience of entertainment.

The Cathedral is definitely not the sole attraction in Chartres. The narrow streets of the old city centre east of the Cathedral slope down to the banks of the river Eure. A walk along steep Rue de Bourg and its continuation Rue Porte Guillaume leads one to a place where the river branches out into three water canals. Several footbridges span the river branches and lead to shady areas that abound with trees and greenery, ideal for a summer picnic. Of particular interest are Rue de la Foulerie and Rue de la Tannerie, both of which border the westernmost branch of the river. If you walk north from here, you will meet several old buildings, mostly restored remnants of structures formerly used by riverside tradesmen. Further north along Rue de la Tannerie, you will reach Collegiale St-Andre, an unrestored Romanesque abbey that suffered severe damages during World War II. From here, a flight of steps leads you to the Cathedral’s back garden.

The narrow streets south of the Cathedral abound with specialized shops and restaurants. On Rue de Changes and Rue de la Pie, one finds excellent patisseries and boulangeries that serve baguettes, delicious desserts and much more. The covered market on Place Billard has several food stalls, ideal for those on a shoestring. On Cloitre Notre Dame, one finds shops that sell a wide range of Chartres souvenirs and religious items. Look for stained-glass replicas that try to imitate the real thing with precision.
Chartres Cathedral/Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres
Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres
Chartres, France

Savour history and architecture in Saint-Denis

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by marif on March 30, 2012

The historical grandeur of Paris, the magnificent ecclesiastical architecture that has graced France since the First Crusade and the resplendent collections of artefacts, silverware, porcelain and conventual relics, handmade during the affluent Renaissance era are epitomized in some way or another in Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris widely known and admired for its intimate and historically deep-rooted city centre.

Quiet and peaceful, often understated by tour operators, this charming city where memoirs of things past are evident at every corner and French royalty is allegorically brought back to life, is ideal for a day or two of cultural sightseeing and historical discovery.

A short metro ride on Line 13 from ‘Champs Elysees Clemenceau’ or ‘Invalides’ takes one to the station ‘Basilique de Saint-Denis’ which is only a couple of minutes north from the tourist office and the main attractions. The last stop of the line, ‘Saint-Denis Universite’ is further north but one can walk easily from here towards the city centre, past numerous minor attractions that include the north end of Rue Gabriel Peri, a pedestrian zone bordered with shops and budget restaurants.

The small medieval centre of Saint-Denis has retained traces of the crucial role the city played in the history of France and in the development of architecture. A few buildings that date back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries still stand today but no other structure in the city gives better evidence of the bygone age that moulded the history of France than the Basilica of Saint-Denis. In addition to this, Saint-Denis Basilica is a landmark of European architecture since it is the first major edifice that set the pattern for Gothic features in church planning and design.

Why is the Basilica of Saint-Denis a milestone in the history of France? The answer to this question is discovered once you visit the Basilica and the underground burial chambers located below its huge choir. Much older than the Basilica, the underground crypt preserves the structural remains of an eight-century church and quite a few revered relics of venerated early Christian martyrs. Along with these, one is given the opportunity to view the respected residues of the corpse of Saint Denis, first bishop of Paris and patron saint of France. Architecture connoisseurs should on no account miss the central chapel. Supported on heavy pillars and thick walls and remodelled a number of times throughout the ages, it is an antique wonder of architecture.

To do justice to this monumental edifice of history, one must definitely step inside the Basilica itself. A tour around the Basilica, particularly around the transepts or side naves and around the back choir or ambulatory gives one the opportunity to step back in time and discover a wealth of fine marble tombs and effigies of French monarchs who ruled France for more than five centuries. Interred within this historical burial site are 42 French kings, 32 queens and at least 63 of their children and high-court officials. The place of rest of each is easily identified through inscriptions in Latin or French that exploit the use of words to immortalize the deceased within.

One of the most interesting, both for its aesthetic splendour as well as for its historical significance is the huge Renaissance memorial of Francois the First, located in the south transept. Equally interesting and imposing is the tomb of Henry the Second and Catherine de Medicis found in the north transept. The apex of this royal necropolis however is reached in the canopied tomb of Louis the Twelfth and Anne of Brittany. Sculpted in high-quality marble, the side-by-side corpses of the king and queen are decorated with highly-crafted statues of the apostles. To complement this monumental opus, each of the four main virtues is symbolized at each corner while the king’s most successful deeds are depicted along the sides with rows of bas-reliefs.

Once this interactive history lesson about medieval French royalty comes to an end, one is advocated to go round the Basilica again in view of appreciating the architectural heritage and the Gothic lacy stonework of this colossal structure. Although the Basilica of Saint-Denis is regarded as the first massive Gothic structure in Europe, it exposes nonetheless the most stunning and most evocative features that are usually attributed to Gothic architecture.

Would-be visitors who are unacquainted with Gothic church design need to become familiar with the basic characteristics of the Gothic style before they visit. The most important features include the pointed arch, the ribbed vault and the flying buttress. One has also to note that Gothic churches in France were usually built in white limestone which was favoured over red sandstone or brickwork for sculptural decorations, particularly where intricate ornamental stonework was concerned.

The groundwork of the Gothic Basilica you see was initiated in 1136 but the complete structure was not accomplished before the end of the thirteenth century when further Gothic features were added. Worthy of note both for its innovative pointed rib vaults as well as for its elaborately sculpted windows is the choir, a masterpiece of structural design considered by architectural connoisseurs to be an extreme example in the use of pointed arches that have the faculty to assign great strength and stability to structural compositions.

Another feature of the choir that renders it a marvel of Gothic architecture is the chain of huge arched windows, one window separated from the next by a thin masonry framework. The pinnacle of each window is ornamented with a profusion of lacy arches that interweave to form a pattern of amazing architectural beauty. If one looks carefully at these windows, one cannot fail to marvel at the huge stained glass that fills in the skeletal Gothic framework. Among the colours that stand out for their vividness and luminosity, one finds a special variety of rose and a rich assortment of purples. Visitors are encouraged to visit the Basilica in the morning when the lovely stained-glass windows glow with the radiated light at sunrise, creating an effect of luminosity, clarity and space.

Other focal points in the Basilica that one cannot overlook are the side-by-side altars that are spread around the ambulatory chapels and the opulent altar dedicated to Saint Denis that occupies the central area of the choir. One will definitely be impressed by the interior architecture of the Basilica and the endless list of magnificent funerary sculptures within. The slender soaring columns, the pointed arches and the rows of stained-glass windows through which light flows in to illuminate this gargantuan space add to the magnificence of this unique place of worship.

Of special interest as well however is the exterior structural design of the west front, consisting of a three-storey elevation wrapped up at the top with a fortress-like parapet. The massive central doorway, larger than those on either side, is adorned with vertical columns and buttresses filled in with thin statues of Old Testament prophets. Above the doorways, the tympanum contains a wonderful carved scene that depicts in detail the Last Judgement and the resurrection of the dead. Of great appeal for its intricate interweaved stonework is the large rose window that occupies a position of dominance at the centre of the upper storey. The heavily ornamented bronze doors with scenes from Christ’s passion add to the magnificence of the west front elevation.

After visiting the Basilica, visitors who are not short of time are encouraged to walk south on Rue de la Legion d’Honneur. On reaching the metro station ‘Saint-Denis Porte de Paris’, cross the wide footbridge you see in front of you. The huge structure further away is the Stade de France, a huge state-of-the-art super-modern stadium that can be visited on hourly guided tours. It is one of Europe’s largest stadiums having a seating capacity of 80 thousand. One feature of the stadium that renders it a great feat of engineering is its elliptical shape. Consider as well its steel roof structure with a huge central tinted-glass area that is engineered to filter out infrared radiation. The two gigantic screens located opposite each other at the far ends of the stadium produce high-quality vision images that are renowned for their brightness and sharpness.

If you happen to be in Saint-Denis on a Tuesday, Friday or Sunday morning, don’t fail to visit the Marche de Saint-Denis, a huge vibrant colourful market that specializes in exotic spices and fresh herbs. The market stalls welcome vendors of all kinds, most of whom are ready to let you taste the products before you buy. The language of bargaining is rarely French but vendors here seem to be multilingual.

Cathedral Basilica of Saint-Denis
2 Rue De Strasbourg Place De L'hôtel-de-ville
Saint-Denis, Paris
+33 1 48 09 83 54

Le Ventre de Paris: shopping mall and recreational space

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by marif on March 26, 2012

Crowded with people, chock-a-block with attractions and crammed with tempting activities day and night, the ‘premiere arrondissement de Paris’ is unquestionably the city’s hot spot and fashionable area.

Being the geographical centre of Paris and a major transport hub through which most metro and RER lines are routed, it is essentially a place that brims with numerous iconic and historic landmarks and with quite a few of the world’s most visited tourist sites. The Louvre, which is perhaps the most elegant and artistic museum of fine arts in the world lies within the first district. The Royal Palace located opposite the north wing of the Louvre and embellished with landscaped gardens, colonnaded archways and wonderful architecture is a major attraction for history buffs.

Contrasting strongly with all this Parisian ethos and refinement stands a thirty-year old underground shopping centre that is distinctly different from other building structures within the first district. Known as the Forum des Halles, it is a massive and colourful shopping mall filled with trendy fashion stores, food markets, restaurants, cafes and entertainment spaces.

All this seems familiar. However, one has to consider as well the distinctive and controversial outside architecture of Les Halles to determine whether this project was a success and an enrichment or a failure and a calamity to the city centre. Initiated in 1971 when the former old marketplace was demolished and completed in 1986 when it was opened with great fanfare, it has been in the mouth of Parisians ever since.

One elegant ‘Parisienne’ referred to this project as a stopgap, a filling-up structure intended to hide the big hole that remained when the traditional central market was demolished. Another Parisian lady informed me that some shops have closed up while others intend to close in the future. "Go inside" she said, "and check for yourself. La plupart des magasins sont vacants ou fermes, n’est-ce pas?" But why? Paris is not an underground city and Parisians prefer to buy from small specialized street-level shops rather than from characterless department stores. The adjacent Rue Saint Honore filled with luxury boutiques that sell cutting-edge fashion brands of international renown is a case in point.

A senior citizen whom I met in the below-street-level open-air central area reading Le Monde was less critical of the project. He said that rightly so, the shopping mall was intended to hide the metro traffic further down. With a sigh of relief, he added that within the whole city of Paris, there’s no better place to relax and enjoy the summer shade than on a seat within one of the three recreational areas of Les Halles.

I have visited the majestic Forum des Halles several times since its opening in 1986. The number of elegant shops, chic boutiques and first-class traditional restaurants that formerly embellished the shopping mall are gradually becoming less and far between; in most cases, they are being taken over by fast-food outlets. High quality design clothing stores and charming bourgeois cafes that were frequented by locals and tourists alike are giving way to poor quality clothing outlets and gastronomic tourist traps.

However, throughout all these years of commercial activity, one thing has remained intact. It is the avant-garde architectural design that stands as a breathtaking evidence of the artistic skill of Jean Willerval who was responsible for the plan and implementation of the ground level structure. Love it or hate it, praise it or criticize it, Jean Willerval’s design stands out for its uniqueness and originality. Consisting mostly of rows of orderly web-like concrete curvatures that twist and straighten again to form huge archways that are pleasing to the eye and architecturally unique, the structure is more aesthetically artistic than functional. The recreational outdoor spaces thrown in to complement the whole structure are dotted here and there with modern artistic sculptures that add to the exquisite design of the area.

Architecturally unique and pleasing as it is, Les Halles has not succeeded in fulfilling the delicate character of the people of Paris. Some have called it a steel-and-glass mushroom, others referred to it as a bombastic jungle of concrete while others used the traditional nickname of ‘le ventre de Paris’, the latter being a reference to Emile Zola’s novel with the same name set within the walls of the old marketplace in the 19th century.

The days of Les Halles as we know it are counted since a new architectural design intended to renew the area is in the pipeline. It is said that a huge glass canopy will protect the new recreational outdoor areas in view of making them usable day and night both in summer and winter. One has to wait quite a few years to see how this major renewal project will proceed and affect the architecture and functionality of the area. Parisians will undoubtedly comment on the outcome.

Even if Les Halles is not your Paris favourite or you regard its architecture as nothing more than a tangle or maze of jumbled concrete pillars, the area in its close vicinity and within walking distance incorporates several redeeming factors that offer visitors a blend of historic and modern works of art.

One structure that will unquestionably satisfy your crave for anything historical is L’Eglise Saint Eustache, a masterpiece of late Gothic architecture. Located a stone’s throw from Les Halles and detached from its ground level by a small landscaped garden, it is a magnificent edifice whose lacy exterior architecture complements the detailed conglomeration of its interior Renaissance decorations. Parisians are proud of their historical heritage and they consider L’Eglise Saint Eustache as a monumental edifice few other churches in the world can surpass with regards to architectural magnificence. However, it is rarely advertised in tourist brochures although it encloses in a nutshell a diverse range of rich architectural styles and historical artefacts. In addition to this, consider visiting the church on a Sunday evening when you can enjoy a free organ recital of church music played on the largest and most elaborate church organ in France. I found a graffiti written in French on a garden wall near the church on Place Rene Cassin. It read like this:
"Plus d’une eglise, ce monument historique est un palais de fees."

Also within walking distance of Les Halles but on the opposite side of Boulevard de Sebastopol lies the answer to Madrid’s Reina Sofia, the most exquisite museum of contemporary art in Spain.

Named after the ex-prime minister and later president of France Georges Pompidou, it stands for all that is modern and radical in Paris and symbolizes change, creativity and innovation. Georges Pompidou, long gone, is immortalized through this ‘grand project’ of modernism and originality.

On looking at the huge front elevation of the structure from Place Georges Pompidou, one gets mixed feelings about its queer and peculiar architecture. Is it strikingly beautiful? Is it pleasing and fine-looking? Or is it ugly and dreadful? On looking carefully however, one concludes that the exterior architectural style of Centre Pompidou with inside recesses turned outside is not only surprisingly queer but also practical. The rows of protruding trumpet-like circular windows are charming and eye-pleasing.

But one has to go inside to appreciate fully the wonder that surrounds this spectacular museum. Enormous exhibition spaces on the fourth and fifth floors are devoted to modern art, including works by members of the Surrealist and Cubist movements. A wide range of contemporary artworks by French and foreign artists are also on display here. From time to time, Centre Pompidou also houses temporary exhibitions in two large open spaces on the sixth floor. In addition to this, musical performances and drama are put on stage on a regular basis in the centre’s theatre while films of calibre are shown a few times daily in the adjoining cinema. Also forming part of the complex is the Bibliotheque Publique d’Information, a huge library and information centre that occupies the second and third floors of the complex.

Even if modern art is not your preferred realm of the artistic world, make sure to visit this stunning place at least once. There is here much more than bright colours, intersecting planes, brush strokes and still lifes.

La Defense: an exposition of modernism in all its forms

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by marif on March 20, 2012

A twenty-minute metro ride on Line 1 or a RER ride on line A leads one to the city’s western outskirts of La Defense, a major commercial district dedicated to business, offices and administrative centres.

Consisting mostly of endless rows of towering skyscrapers and outstanding buildings of contrasting heights, this immense space of extraordinary urbanism stands out against the historical character of downtown Paris. While the inner city is mostly renowned for a diversity of stunning ecclesiastical architecture that stands as a breathtaking evidence of a long cherished era of Christianity, the western district of La Defense is a permanent exposition of modernism in all its forms.

Visitors to Paris, even if they are not attracted by high-rise glass-and-steel constructions will definitely find the district of La Defense interesting and visually stimulating. Cut across by a traffic-free esplanade that is a pleasure to walk through in summer, the district of La Defense is dotted here and there by miniature parks and recreational areas, some of which embrace modern art sculptures and monuments. The highlight of these monumental edifices is a not-so-modern sculpture that dates back to 1883 and stands in commemoration of the defence of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 – 1871.

The greatest architectural wonder within La Defense, both for its sheer size and grandeur as well as for its structural originality and uniqueness is La Grande Arche, a 106-metres high rectangular archway in white Carrara marble that dominates the westernmost space of the district and overlooks the forested region of the Bois de Boulogne. Although I succeeded in getting a bird’s eye view of Paris after climbing via a state-of-the-art elevator to the viewing platform on the 35th floor in 2008, I didn’t have the chance to embark on the same endeavour in 2011 since the roof section was closed to the public when I visited. Would-be visitors should disregard the view from the top and concentrate on the Grande Arche at night. Impressively lit, it offers amateur snapshooters the opportunity to exercise their skills in creative night photography, combining the light available to illuminate the Arch with long exposure. The results can be very stunning photographic images that encapsulate diverse colour shadows and are a pleasure to view and share with friends.

La Grande Arche is just one of the gigantic structures that adorn the district of La Defense. Much higher than the Grande Arche but not as innovative with regards to structural design is the Total Coupole, a huge monolith built in 1985. Composed of five joined towering structures, it is directly accessible from the Grande Arche metro station. Most of the offices inside are occupied by the multinational petroleum company 'Total' but one can also find a large parking space, an auditorium, a sports complex and several fast-food outlets.

Below the tourist information centre on Place de La Defence, one can admire a small museum that traces the development of La Defense since its birth in 1950. Several drawings, photographs, architectural plans and scale models of existing buildings and structures that are still in the pipeline waiting for development are featured in a detailed step-by-step exposition that shows the growth and gradual expansion of the district.

La Defense counts more than 100 towering structures, most of which are used as administrative offices by government departments, private enterprises or multinational companies, employing thousands of workers. With so many people confined to a relatively small ground space on a daily basis, one expects to find an incessant flow of people roaming from one building to another either on business trips or else in search of a light bite or a drink. La Defense is in fact a fast-food territory where the usual fast-food outlets have opened at least one eatery. To these, one has to add the stylish restaurants and cosy cafes on Place de La Defense and Place du Dome. Here, those looking for a decent meal can sit at a table and feel like a Lilliput looking at gigantic edifices of enormous proportions.

An easy metro ride from the metro station ‘Esplanade de La Defense’ on the easternmost edge of the district to metro station ‘Concorde’ or ‘Louvre’ takes visitors back to the city centre. Those who have time however are encouraged to test their physical fitness and stamina through walking. At the eastern end of the esplanade on La Defense, Pont de Neuilly over the Seine leads to Avenue Charles de Gaulle, a huge thoroughfare where car enthusiasts can admire rich Parisian drivers testing their driving skill on red Ferraris or Lamborghinis. After all, roads are for cars. Avenue Charles de Gaulle, however, lined on both sides with wide pavements that are detached from traffic by a row of chestnut trees is also ideal for walking. Place de la Porte Maillot, the first roundabout on Avenue Charles de Gaulle where one also finds a metro station with the same name can be reached on foot in about an hour.

Eagerness to walk further on Avenue de la Grande Armee for another half hour brings one face to face with a second roundabout of huge proportions on Place Charles de Gaulle. The centre of the roundabout is adorned with the Arc de Triomphe, a monumental edifice and symbol of Paris, built in commemoration of Napoleon’s war victories. An endless number of tourist coaches fill in the parking spaces on the numerous avenues that radiate from here towards every part of the city. Take the underpass where tickets to climb to the top are sold, then join the crowd of visitors, all eager to climb 284 steps to the viewing platform. The view from the top over the Seine and inner Paris is both picturesque and rewarding and gives viewers the opportunity to get a good orientation of central Paris. You can’t miss the huge steel structure of the Tour Eiffel and the golden dome of Les Invalides.

Place Charles de Gaulle and the Arc de Triomphe mark the westernmost end of Avenue de Champs Elysees, a wide mall of elegant shops, first-class restaurants and cafes. More chic than London’s Oxford Street, Champs Elysees is where Parisian women of panache and style go to buy their wear. All famous fashion brands and cutting-edge designs are exhibited here. If you can’t afford to buy a leather handbag or a pair of heels for your demanding girlfriend whom you love dearly, try to avoid such shops as Louis Vuitton or Cartier. After all, chic and elegant as they are, such buys are very expensive; consider buying instead at a cheaper price from Galeries Lafayette and Le Printemps, both on Boulevard Haussmann.

One shop on Champs Elysees that is affordable and catches the attention of those with a sweet tooth is a renowned chocolatier. With your back towards the Arc de Triomphe, it is located on the left-hand side of Champs Elysees, a five-minute walk from the Arc. Handmade chocolate cookies, some of which represent famous landmarks in Paris are made fresh by specialist chocolate makers. Chocolate candies filled in with almond paste are to die for. No free samples but one can see the specialists concocting their sticky melange.

Further eastwards on Champs Elysees, one finds a three-floor Citroen showroom where the most innovative Citroen models are exhibited. Besides street models, one can get enthusiastic about a couple of racing models or innovative designs that are still on the drawing board. Definitely head turning for car buffs.

Champs Elysees changes into a green boulevard lined with old chestnut trees on approaching Place de la Concorde. Devoid of commercial outlets that are here replaced by green groves and recreational parks, this is perhaps the best section of Champs Elysees that is ideal for walking. Get here a breath of fresh summer air, particularly as you get closer to the Seine. The wrought iron green-and-gold bridge you see on your right as you approach Place de la Concorde leads straight to the Esplanade des Invalides. But closer to Champs Elysees than the bridge, one can admire the outside architecture of two palaces that face each other on Avenue Winston Churchill: the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais, both gems of architectural magnificence.

Some metres further east, Place de la Concorde boasts a central granite obelisk that was donated to France by the pasha of Egypt in 1831. Place de la Concorde joins the Jardin des Tuileries, a formal garden and fashionable site where one can find ideal spots for relaxation in the shade of old linden trees and weeping willows.

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