Highlights of Paris: Eiffel and Monet to Crème Brulée
Packing the best of Paris into one episode, we scale the Eiffel Tower, then savor classic treats- from steak tartare to crème brulée. We marvel at Monet, Manet and company in the stunning Orsay Gallery. Tracing the sad steps of Marie Antoinette, we relive French history from its bloody revolution to its extravagant belle epoch.
- Read the script from the show.
It's crowded and expensive, but this 1,000-foot-tall ornament is worth the trouble. In hot weather, it's six inches taller. It covers 2.5 acres and requires 50 tons of paint. Its 7,000 tons of metal are spread out so well at the base that it's no heavier per square inch than a linebacker on tiptoes. Visitors to Paris may find Mona Lisa to be less than expected, but the Eiffel Tower rarely disappoints, even in an era of skyscrapers.
Built a hundred years after the French Revolution (and in the midst of an industrial one), the tower served no function but to impress. Bridge-builder Gustave Eiffel won the contest for the 1889 Centennial World's Fair by beating out such rival proposals as a giant guillotine. To a generation hooked on technology, the tower was the marvel of the age, a symbol of progress, and of man's ingenuity. To others it was a cloned-sheep monstrosity. The writer Guy de Maupassant routinely ate lunch in the tower just so he wouldn't have to look at it.
Delicate and graceful when seen from afar, the Eiffel is massive — even a bit scary — from close up. You don't appreciate the size until you walk toward it; like a mountain, it seems so close but takes forever to reach. There are three observation platforms, at 200, 400, and 900 feet; the higher you go, the more you pay. One elevator will take you to the first or second level (just stay on after first stop), but the third level has a separate elevator and line. Plan on at least 90 minutes if you want to go to the top and back. While being on the windy top of the Eiffel Tower is a thrill you'll never forget, the view is actually better from the second level because you're closer to the sights, and the monuments are more recognizable.
A tourist information office/ticket booth is between the Pilier Nord (north pillar) and Pilier Est (east pillar). The stairs (yes, you can walk up partway) are next to the Jules Verne restaurant entrance (reserve 3 months in advance). A sign in the cheek-to-jowl elevator tells you to beware of pickpockets.
The first level has exhibits, a post office (cancellation stamp will read Eiffel Tower), a snack bar, WCs and souvenirs. Read the informative signs (in English) describing the major monuments, see the entertaining free movie on the history of the tower, and don't miss a century of fireworks — including the entire millennium blast — on video. Then consider a drink or a sandwich overlooking all of Paris at the snack café (outdoor tables in summer) or at the city's best view bar/restaurant, Altitude 95. The second level has the best views (walk up stairway to get above netting), a cafeteria, and WCs.
While you'll save no money, consider taking the lift up and the stairs down (from second level) for good exercise and views.
Métro stop: Trocadéro, RER-C: Champ de Mars-Tour Eiffel, tel. 01 44 11 23 23
Paris Plage and roller-bladers
The Riviera it's not, but this fanciful faux beach — assembled in summer along a two-mile stretch of the Seine on the Right Bank — is a fun place to stroll, play, and people-watch on a sunny day. Each summer since 2002, the Paris city government has shut down the embankment's highway and trucked in potted palm trees, hammocks, lounge chairs, and 2,000 tons of sand to create a colorful urban beach. You'll also find "beach cafés," climbing walls, prefab pools, trampolines, boules, a library, beach volleyball, badminton, and Frisbee areas in three zones: sandy, grassy, and wood-tiled. As you take in the playful atmosphere, imagine how much has changed here since the Middle Ages when this was a grimy fishing community (free, mid-July–mid-Aug, no beach off-season; on the Right Bank of the Seine, just north of the Ile de la Cité, between pont des Arts and pont de Sully).
The same riverside highway also provides a long fun-filled traffic-free zone for joggers, bicyclists, and rollerbladers on Sundays (mid-July-mid-Aug). For even more high-rolling fun, thousands of rollerbladers take to the streets Friday nights and summer Sunday afternoons as police close off various routes in different parts of downtown (ask at your hotel or a TI).
For many, Paris merits hiring a Parisian as your personal guide. Arnaud Servignat is an excellent licensed local guide who also does car tours of the countryside around Paris (tel. 06 68 80 29 05, fax 01 42 57 00 38, firstname.lastname@example.org).
The Orsay Museum boasts Europe's greatest collection of Impressionist works. It might be less important than the Louvre — but it's more purely enjoyable.
This wonderful museum, housed in an atmospheric old train station, picks up where the Louvre leaves off: the second half of the 19th century. This is art from the tumultuous times that began when revolutions swept across Europe in 1848, and ended with the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
Begin on the ground floor, featuring conservative art of the mid-1800s — careful, idealized neoclassicism (with a few rebels mixed in). Then glide up the escalator to the late 1800s, when the likes of Manet, Monet, Degas and Renoir jolted the art world with their colorful, lively new invention, Impressionism. (Somewhere in there, Whistler's Mother sits quietly.)
You'll also enjoy the works of their artistic descendents, the post-Impressionists (van Gogh and Cézanne) and the Primitives (Rousseau, Gauguin, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec). On the mezzanine level, waltz through the Grand Ballroom, Art Nouveau exhibits and Rodin sculptures.
RER-C stop: Musée d'Orsay; Métro stop: Solférino; tel. 01 40 49 48 14
Catacombs of Paris
These underground tunnels contain the anonymous bones of six million permanent Parisians. In 1785, the Revolutionary Government of Paris decided to relieve congestion and improve sanitary conditions by emptying the city cemeteries (which traditionally surrounded churches) into an official ossuary.
The perfect locale was the many miles of underground tunnels from limestone quarries, which were, at that time, just outside the city. For decades, priests led ceremonial processions of black-veiled, bone-laden carts into the quarries, where the bones were stacked into piles five feet high and as much as 80 feet deep behind neat walls of skull-studded tibiae. Each transfer was completed with the placement of a plaque indicating the church and district from which that stack of bones came and the date they arrived.
From the entry, a spiral staircase leads 60 feet down. Then you begin a one-mile subterranean walk. After several blocks of empty passageways, you ignore a sign announcing: "Halt, this is the empire of the dead." Along the way, plaques encourage visitors to reflect upon their destiny: "Happy is he who is forever faced with the hour of his death and prepares himself for the end every day."
You emerge far from where you entered, with white limestone-covered toes, telling anyone in the know you've been underground gawking at bones. Note to wannabe Hamlets: An attendant checks your bag at the exit for stolen souvenirs. A flashlight is handy. Being under 6'2" is helpful.
The catacombs (tel. 01 43 22 47 63) are near the Métro stop Denfert-Rochereau. Find the lion in the big traffic circle; if he looked left rather than right, he'd stare right at the green entrance to the Catacombs.
At the Carnavalet Museum, French history unfolds in a series of stills — like a Ken Burns documentary, except you have to walk. The Revolution is the highlight, but you get a good overview of everything, from Louis XIV–period rooms, to Napoleon, to the belle époque.
The tumultuous history of Paris is well portrayed in this converted Marais mansion. Explanations are in French only, but many displays are fairly self-explanatory. You'll see paintings of Parisian scenes, French Revolution paraphernalia, old Parisian store signs, a small guillotine, a model of 16th-century Ile de la Cité (notice the bridge houses) and rooms full of 17th-century Parisian furniture.
The museum is free but avoid lunchtime, when many rooms close (23 rue de Sévigné, Métro stop: St. Paul, tel. 01 44 59 58 58).
Don't leave Paris without strolling the avenue des Champs-Elysées. This is Paris at its most Parisian: monumental sidewalks, stylish shops, grand cafés and glimmering showrooms.
This famous boulevard is Paris' backbone, with its greatest concentration of traffic. From the Arc de Triomphe down the avenue des Champs-Elysées, all of France seems to converge on place de la Concorde, the city's largest square. While the Champs-Elysées has become a bit globalized, a walk here is a must.
To reach the top of the Champs-Elysées, take the Métro to the Arc de Triomphe (Mo: Charles de Gaulle-Etoile) then saunter down the grand boulevard (Métro stops every few blocks: Charles de Gaulle-Etoile, George V, Franklin D. Roosevelt).
This thoroughly enjoyable museum showcases the lavish home of a wealthy, art-loving, 19th-century Parisian couple. After wandering the grand boulevards, you now get inside for an intimate look at the lifestyles of the Parisian rich and fabulous. Edouard André and his wife Nélie Jacquemart — who had no children — spent their lives and fortunes designing, building and then decorating a sumptuous mansion.
What makes this visit so rewarding is the fine audioguide tour (in English, free with admission). The place is strewn with paintings by Rembrandt, Botticelli, Uccello, Mantegna, Bellini, Boucher and Fragonard — enough to make a painting gallery famous. Plan on spending an hour with the audioguide.
Metro stop: Miromesnil or St Philippe de Roule, tel. 01 45 62 11 59