Highlights of Paris: Eiffel and Monet to Crème Brulée
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves — back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're exploring the wonders of Paris — magnificent and.thanks to Misseur Eiffel.riveting.
To me, Paris is the capital of Europe. It's the city I can return to more than any other with grand sights that need no introduction. And it hides a lifetime of cultural delights.
We'll see lots of sights. And just about everything in this episode is within walking distance.
The Seine River splits the city into the Right Bank and the Left Bank. Its two islands mark the center of the old town. Most of the essential sights lie near the Notre Dame, between the Eiffel Tower, the Latin Quarter, and Montmartre — the city's highest point.
The Eiffel Tower was built in 1889 — to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution and show off at a world's fair. It was a muscular symbol of the Industrial Age.
To a generation hooked on technology, it was the marvel of its age.trumpeting progress and man's ingenuity. This 900-foot-tall tower has three observation levels: the higher you go the more you pay. For me the middle level is plenty high. Thousands of iron bars, millions of rivets, 7,000 tons.assembled in just over 2 years. Today, it stands tall, an exclamation point, symbolizing the proud, independent spirit of the French.
The Trocadero Square, across the river, is the place to view the tower.and to check out a colorful scene. Parisians own their city.
In fact, twice a week streets are closed and thousands turn out to roll through the city in an exuberant celebration of life.
Paris was born centuries before Christ here on the Île de la Cité — an island in the middle of the Seine River. The Romans conquered the local fishing tribe and set up camp. Today the Notre-Dame cathedral marks the place where a Roman temple once stood.
The city's first bishop, St. Dennis, holds his head in his hands. When Christianity began making converts here, the Romans beheaded him. But, according to legend, Dennis just picked up his head and kept on going.
Inspired by this miracle, Christianity flourished and the temple was replaced by a church. Imagine the faith of people who built this — breaking ground in 1163 on a building which wouldn't be finished for 200 years. Gothic architects incorporated the latest technology — flying buttresses to support the heavy rooftop. Its ghoulish gargoyles multi-task: they serve as fancy rain spouts and scare away the evil spirits.
The church is dedicated to "our lady" or Notre Dame. Mary cradles the baby Jesus; the rose window provides a majestic halo.
The Virgin Mary was highly revered throughout the Middle Ages. The faithful petitioned her in times of trouble to gain both comfort and, through her intervention, God's mercy.
As worshippers headed for Mass they'd walk under a relief of Judgment Day. Christ sits on his throne. The trumpet sounds. All are judged: peasants, knights, nobles, royals .even bishops. An angel weighs cute little souls while mean demons try to cheat. The saved stand happily at Christ's right hand. The damned.a sorry chain gang on His left.
Carvings like that.and like this seductive snake, serving Eve a tempting apple.remind us that this art was more than decoration. These images reinforced the stories people learned in church.
While the church is dedicated to Mary, the rest of Paris seems dedicated to regular Parisians. The old center, with its two islands in the middle of the Seine, retains a charming elegance. The Île de la Cité is laden with historic sights. But the little Île St. Louis, connected by a pedestrian bridge, is laden only with the delights of good living.
I'm rendezvousing with my Parisian friend and fellow tour guide, Arnaud Servignat.
Arnaud: "The Ile St. Louis is charming. But the entire city is charming. Almost all of Paris faces the Seine River. We call the Seine the mirror of Paris.our great monuments are reflected in it.
The embankment was once a mucky slum. Napoleon fixed it up. Today it's a great people zone. We come here to stroll. And we party here. You should see the dancing on Bastille Day.
Bouquinistes - that's from the word for used book. Very historic. They go back to the middle ages when all kinds of wild business was going on here and they decided to regulate it. So these are independent businesses, but they must be open four days a week. Very bohemian.a great icon of Paris."
I'm taking Arnaud to lunch. Against his advice, I'm eating all the Parisian cuisine clichés — in one meal. They come in courses:
Apéritif - a pastis or a kir
Entrée — soup and escargot
Main plate - Stake tartare
Cheese - a stinky mix with wine
Dessert - crème brûlée
Café - une noisette
Digestif - cognac
Getting around Paris is easy on the Mêtro. The original stations were Art Nouveau. This new one celebrates the system's 100th birthday. And the latest generation shows Europe's commitment to ever more efficient public transit. The train is completely automated allowing passengers to watch the tunnel coming at them. Faster than a taxi can take us.we hurtle beneath the city to our next stop.
The Orsay Gallery fills an old train station with one of Europe's most popular collections of art — including several much-loved halls of Impressionist masterpieces. The building itself is magnificent. Train tracks used to go right down the middle.
The art of the Orsay takes you from 1848 to 1914. This is the time when the old world meets the modern age. It's old and new, side by side.conservative and revolutionary.
19th century artists painted idealized beauty. This was conservative art, popular throughout the 1800s because it was — just — beautiful.
Cabanel's Birth of Venus is a perfect beauty. The love queen reclines seductively — just born from the foam of a wave. At the time, sex was considered dirty and could be exalted only in a more pure and divine form.
But while mainstream artists cranked out these ideal beauties, a revolutionary new breed of artists was painting a harsher reality.
Cross the tracks and you find the Realists. In The Painter's Studio, Gustave Courbet takes us behind the scene at the painting of a goddess. The model — not a goddess, but a real woman — takes a break from posing to watch Courbet at work. Ordinary people mill about. The little boy seems to adore the artist — already notorious for abandoning the mainstream.
No one would show Courbet's work.so he put on his own art show. He built a shed in the center of town and hanging his paintings — basically thumbing his nose at the shocked public and his conservative critics.
Edouard Manet rubbed realism in the public's face. And they hated it. Manet's nude doesn't gloss over anything. The pose is classic, but the sharp outlines and harsh colors are new and shocking. Her hand is a clamp. Her stare.defiant. This prostitute, ignoring the flowers her last customer sent, looks out as if to say, "Next."
It's about 1880 and Manet and his rat pack of conservatively-dressed radicals gathered in Paris, pushing the creative envelope. It's time to let the revolution of Impressionism begin.
Impressionism initiated the greatest change in art since the Renaissance. Now, artists were freed to delve into the world of colors, light, and fleeting impressions. Impressionists featured easy-going open-air scenes, candid spontaneity, and always.the play of light.
They made their canvases shimmer by a simple technique. Rather than mixing colors together on a palate, they applied the colors in dabs side-by-side on the canvas and let these mix as they traveled to your eye. Up close it doesn't work. But move back.and voilá!
Claude Monet is called the father of Impressionism. For him, the physical subject was now only the rack upon which to hang the light, shadows, and colors.
August Renoir caught Parisians living and loving in the afternoon sun. Dappled light was his specialty. In this painting you can almost feel the sun's warmth and smell the powder on the faces. Even the shadows are caught up in the mood.everything's dancing. Renoir paints a waltzing blur to capture not the physical details but the intangible charm of a restaurant on Paris' Montmartre.
Montmartre — a Parisian hill crowned by the dramatic neo-Byzantine Sacré Cœur church — was famous for the ambiance captured by the Impressionists.
A block away, the Place du Tertre is jumbled with artists — and tourists. If you really try, you can almost imagine Renoir, Van Gogh and Picasso who came here a century ago — poor, carefree, and seeking inspiration.
Back then, life here on Montmartre was a working class commotion of cafés, bistros, and dance halls. Painters came here for the low rent and ruddy joix de vivre . While now well-discovered by tourists, if you walk the back streets, a bit of Montmartre's village charm survives.
And from the steps of the Sacré Cœur the City of Light fans out at your feet. It's a place locals and travelers alike congregate to marvel at Paris.
Experiencing this city is a blend of great museums, fine food, and characteristic neighborhoods.
The Latin Quarter is the core of the Left Bank — as the South side of the Seine River is known. This has long been the city's University District. In fact the University of Paris, a leading university in medieval Europe, was founded here in the 13th century.
Back then the vernacular languages — like French and German — were crude.good enough to handle your basic needs. But academics like this guy — spoke and corresponded in Latin. Until the 1800s, from Sicily to Sweden, Latin was the language of Europe's educated elite. Parisians called this university district "the Latin Quarter" because that's the language they heard on the streets.
Today any remnant of that Latin is buried by a colorful tabouli of ethnic restaurants. Still, it remains a great place to get a feel for the tangled city before the narrow lanes were replaced by big modern boulevards in the 19th century.
The scholarly and artsy people of this quarter stoked a new rage — Paris' café scene. By the time of the Revolution, the city's countless cafés were the haunt of politicians and philosophers who plotted a better future as they sipped their coffee.
And the Café society really took off in the early 1900s as the world's literary and artistic avant-garde converged on Paris. In now-famous cafes along Boulevard St. Germain and Boulevard St. Michel free thinkers like Hemmingway, Lenin, and Jean Paul Sartre enjoyed the creative freedom these hangouts engendered.
With its university and café scene, Paris has long been a launch pad for bold new ideas. In the 18th century, ground breaking political and social thinking of French philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau ushered in the Age of Enlightenment. And later, this Enlightenment gave the French Revolution its philosophical basis and it gave the American constitution many of its basic principles.
Paris honors its intellectual and cultural heroes with tombs and memorials in its neo-Classical Pantheon. It looks like an ancient temple but it's only about 250 years old.from the time of the Enlightenment.
During the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolution, which followed, everything was subjected to what was called "the test of reason" — if it wasn't logical.it was tossed out. Nothing was sacred: the whole notion of royalty was challenged and churches were turned into temples of reason.
Even the use of city land for cemeteries — as you learn at the catacombs of Paris — was rejected. The sign reads: Halt this is the empire of death. It kicks off a one mile hike you won't soon forget. The anonymous bones of 6 million permanent Parisians line former limestone quarries deep under the streets. In 1785 Paris decided to make its congested city more spacious and sanitary by emptying the cemeteries — which traditionally surrounded churches — into this labyrinthine ossuary.
For decades priests led ceremonial processions of black veiled bone-laden carts into the quarries where the bones were carefully and artistically stacked as much as 80 feet deep. Each transfer was finished with a plaque identifying from which church the bones came and the date they arrived.
While there's history in dem bones, the Carnavalet Museum — filling a lavish aristocratic old mansion — is the best place to sort through the story of Paris.
Pre-revolutionary France had a government by, for, and of the wealthy. And as the rich got richer and richer, people who lived in fabulous mansions like this became blind to the huge gap between the haves and have nots in their country.
Louis XIV — a.k.a. "the Sun King" — was the ultimate king back when people accepted the notion that a few were born to rule and be rich while most were born to be ruled and taken advantage of.
Room after room shows the opulence of the upper classes in the age leading up to the revolution. Louis XIV enjoyed the luxury but predicted, "Après moi, le deluge." (After me the flood.)
The heart of the museum features that deluge, which hit when this man, Louis XVI was king. The French Revolution was kicked off with the storming of the Bastille prison. The liberal wing of the government met in this indoor tennis court declaring it wouldn't quit until the people had a constitution. And it was vive la nation, liberté egalité, and fraternité.until the people literally beheaded the king, queen, and all that held them down.
Today visitors — generally without even knowing it — often retrace the route Marie Antoinette followed as she was taken from the prison to the guillotine.
Imprisoned on the Île de la Cite, she was paraded in the back of a horse cart that crossed over the Pont Neuf. It's called the new bridge because 400 years ago.it was. Today it's Paris' oldest surviving bridge.
The condemned queen rolled past her palace. The Louvre was once the grandest building in all the world. With the revolution, the people inherited the royal palace, complete with its art collection — Mona Lisa and all.
Next the queen passed her lavish back yard. Today the Tuilleries gardens are the domain of the scruffy commoner.
Marie Antoinette's last stop was here — the Place de la Revolution or "Revolution Square". This is where the new-fangled guillotine, considered a humane form of execution in its day was set up. And it was here that Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and over two thousand others were made, as they said — "a foot shorter at the top."
According to this painting, it took three to run the guillotine.one to manage the blade, one to catch the blood and one to hold the head — in this case of Marie Antoinette — up to the crowd.
Today the vast Revolution Square is called Place de la Concorde — place of harmony. The guillotine is long gone, and its centerpiece is an Egyptian obelisk.
The king and queen were beheaded by a stark and egalitarian government. But the French love of fine living couldn't be kept down. The 19th century was a boom time for Paris. The entire city was beautified with grand boulevards and fancy architecture. It was an exuberant age of money — if you had it.you flaunted it.
From the place de la Concorde, the Champs-Elysées — once a royal carriageway.now Europe's grandest boulevard — leads to the Arc de Triomphe. The arch was dedicated to the victory of the people and their republic.the triumph of French Nationalism.
A glimpse of the decadence of that beautiful age or bellé epoque is enjoyed along the Champs-Elysées.
Paris' old opera house — the grand palace of this gilded age — was finished in 1875. While it's a huge building, the theater only seats 2,000. The real show was before and after, when the elite of Paris — out to see and be seen — strutted their elegant stuff in the extravagant lobbies. Think of the grand marble stairway as a theater itself.filled with Paris' beautiful people.
The actual theater is a palace of plush and ornate seating. Above it all, a delightful ceiling — painted by Marc Chagall in the 1960s — dances around an eight-ton chandelier.
Nearby, the Jacquemart-André Museum fills a 19th-century mansion offering the public a rare aristocratic open house. Edouard André and his wife Nelie spent their lives and fortune designing, building and decorating this incredible mansion.
Actually, today's Paris thrives with ordinary people. The good life feels accessible to all and, in the spirit of France's revolution, the government truly seems to work for the people. While the stunning Georges Pompidou center holds one of the world's top modern art collections, most Parisians seem happy just to hang out in front.
And apart from its world class attractions, millions of people call this city simply...home. Neighborhoods enjoy first-class public transit and, if a train line's decomissioned, it's put to good use, with its arches housing colorful shops and the elevated track made into a long skinny park. The Promenade Plantée is popular for jogging or strolling or just a peaceful break from the city.
There's a time honored finesse to Parisian life — a comfortable time-tested rhythm with kisses on the cheek, neighborhood market streets and familiar faces at the corner café.
Whether you visit for the blockbuster monuments, its captivating history or the simple pleasures of a café, Paris just might steal your heart. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time.Keep on travelin'. Au revoir.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.