There’s something about the country—it’s culture, intellectual and scientific contributions, and remarkable history—that inspires one’s “Joie de la vie.”  We’ve been fortunate to have lived in Paris for nearly 6 months while working with the Institut Français du Pétrole and TOTAL.  This followed a field season in Kalimantan, Indonesia, funded, in part, by the Petroleum Research Fund, where we attempted to understand the role of land plants and the origin of southeast Asian petroleum resources.   After returning to Paris from field work, the family flew to Charles De Gaulle airport whereupon we settled into a very small (300 ft2) flat in La Defense, and the five of us overwintered.

Avenue Armee from Arc de TriompheLa Défense is located northeast of the city across the Seine, and takes its name from  the statue of the “Défense de Paris.”  This statue, built to commemorate the  the Parisian resistance during the Franco-Prussian War erected in 1883. The center of the Quartier Paris La Défense focuses around the Grande Arche, which is built as a reflection of the Arc de Triomphe and lying at the far end of the historical axis.  La Défense is the business center of the city, with construction beginning in the 1950s, and has changed dramatically since we first lived there in the late 1980s.  What hasn’t changed, though, are the architectural and sculptural modern highlights.  This includes Le Bassin de Takis (the Basin of Takis),  designed by, who else, Takis.

La Defense, ParisThe installation is designed as a forest of Signaux, with each “signal” differing in height and form, but all being variants on the theme of energy emission and code transmission.  In Takis’ view, each Signaux transmits messages of an existential value, at a specific frequency, and is believed to be of cosmological significance. The Signaux also function on an emotive  level, and are in the reflecting pool, standing on their own and independent of humanity.

Arc de Triomphe 2012The Arc de Triomphe, commissioned by Napolean and built between 1806 and 1836, stands at the center of the Place Charles de Gaulle, also known as the “Place de l’Étoile,” located at the western end of the Champs-Élysées.  The Arc was built in a traditional style indicative of the first half of the 19th Century, designed by Jean Chalgrin and based on the Arch of Titus in Rome.  It honors those who fought for France, in particular, during the Napoleonic Wars.  Groups, friezes, figures, and bas-reliefs were sculpted by James Pradier, Antoine Etex, and Jean-Pierre Cortot, but the most celebrated sculpture is the work of Francois Rude: La Marseillaise.  This relief commemorates the Departure of the Volunteers in 1792 showing the French people rallying against enemies from abroad.  They are depicted both nude and in classical armor, aroused to patriotic fervor by the Roman goddess of war, Bellona, a personification of Liberty.  The relief, known as “La Marseillaise,” is named after the French national anthem which also was written in 1792– the same year as the departure of the volunteers.

Basilique du Sacre Coeur, ParisOne of the most revered sites in the city is the La Basilique du Sacré Coeur de Montmartre–the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.  Located on Montmartre, the Catholic basilica was built by influential citizens who pledged the construction of a church if Paris escaped Prussian damage but also as a penance for the 1870 defeat of the French at the hands of the Prussian army.  The architect who won the competition for its construction was Paul Abadie.  The basilica he designed is in a Roman-Byzantyne style which stands in sharp contrast with other contemporary buildings in France, and began construction in 1876.  The color of the Basilica is maintained naturally and is due to the use of Château-Landon limestone (travertine) in its construction.  When it rains, chemical reactions between the limestone and water act as a bleach, insuring that the stone remains white. The same building stone was used in the Arc de Triomphe.

 Basilique Sacre Coeur from Musee OrsayLa Basilique du Sacré Coeur de Montmartre can be seen through the grand clock on the front of what now is the Musée d’Orsay.  The clock is a remnant of the building’s past when it was the former Gare d’Orsay, an imposing Beaux-Arts railway station on the left bank of the Seine.  The museum, renovated earlier this century, houses a remarkable and memorable collection of impressionist painters and sculptors.   When we first lived in Paris, visitors to the gallery were allowed to photograph the paintings on exhibit.  This is no longer the case and one needs to consult independent websites, such as the Google Art Project, to get an idea about their holdings.  These include James Abbot McNeil Whistler (1871) Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Auguste Renoir’s (1876) Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette, Vincent van Gogh’s (1889) Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles and (1889) Self Portrait, Paul Gaugin’s (1892) Arearea, Edoard Manet’s (1863) Olympia, various sculptures of Auguste Rodin, and many other renown works of art.  The musee isn’t as imposing as the Lourve, but it still will take you at least a half day to enjoy their offerings.

Rodin's Gates of Hell Detail Detail Rodin Sculpture

The Rodin Musee, opened in 1919, is in the private Paris mansion where the sculptor assembled his works.  Auguste Rodin purchased the building, which had been a former hotel, with the intent of leaving his home, gardens, and sculptures to the citizens of Paris. The permanent collection, located at rue de Varenne in the 7th arrondissement, exhibits not only some of his most famous, and controversial, works including The Thinker, The Burghers of Calais, and The Gates of Hell, but also lesser-known works from Rodin himself, his brilliant student Camille Claudel, and others.  What made his work controversial is the realistic qualities of his figures, unlike his predecessors whose works were largely based on allegory and mythology.  In fact, he was accused of cheating in his work because such a the level of realism had yet been achieved.  The Musee is located close to the Invalides, where the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte I is located.

La Invalides : Napolean I's tombThe Invalides, originally known as the Hôtel des Invalides (1671), was founded by Louis XIV to provide accommodation for disabled and impoverished war veterans.  Today, the building complex The Musée de l’Armée, a large military museum situated on both sides of the cour d’honneur.  The Musee includes military history from the early Middle Ages to the second World War and displays weapons, uniforms, maps and banners from the country’s campaigns.  Following the death of Napoleon I in 1821, after spending 6 years in exile on the island of St Helena, he was buried there in the “Geranium valley”.  His remains were transferred to Paris in 1840 when King Louis-Philippe decided to honor his dedication and service to the country.  His remains were transferred to the Invalides on 15 December 1840 while the tomb was still under construction. It took 21 years for the architect Visconti to transform the inside of the Dome church where the tomb would rest.  Emperor Napoléon I was laid in the tomb of red porphyry from Russia on 2 April 2 1861.  The tomb rests on a green granite base from the Vosges, and is circled by a crown of laurels and inscriptions, reminders of the great victories of the Empire. A statue of the Emperor, bearing the imperial emblems, can be found at the rear of the crypt, above the tombstone under which the King of Rome lies.

As imposing as Napolean’s tomb is visually, it is rivaled only be several other historical landmarks in the cite.  One of the most recognized is The Musée du Louvre, the world’s most famous museum.  One must visit this attraction several times over several days to appreciate all it has to offer.  A one or two hour “quick” tour is insufficient to marvel at the collections and the treasures therein.  On the other end of the spectrum is Louvre overdose, where one attempts to “see it all” in one day.  Your head can spin and you can lose your mental balance if you decided to try and take in all the museum has to offer in “one sitting.”  The museum is found in the Palais du Louvre which was first a 12th Century fortress built by Philip II and, subsequently, was designated by the National Assembly as the museum to display the nation’s masterpieces during the French Revolution.  But, it was under the reign of Napoleon I that the collections grew as a consequence of successful military campaigns.  The museum’s current entrance, and one not available to us when we first lived in the city, is the glass pyramid that stands over a new entrance in the main court, the Cour Napoléon. It was authorized by President François Mitterrand following an international architectural competition won by I. M. Pei.  The second phase of the Grand Louvre plan, La Pyramide Inversée, was completed in 1993.  The Musée du Louvre is one of the world’s greatest treasures and shouldn’t be missed if you’re in Paris.

And, yes, one can not be in Paris without visiting La Cathédrale Notre-Dame, located on the Île in the middle of the Seine on which La Cité began.  The island is considered to be the heart of the city, its center.  The earliest settlement is dated to the 3rd Century B.C., but subsequently was rebuilt as the Roman city of Lutetia in 52 A.D.  A medieval city was refounded on the island after plunder by Nomadic tribes.  La Cathédrale Notre-Dame was begun on the site of a previous 10th Century church.  It was constructed between 1163 and 1345 and the seat of the city’s Archbishop.  The Gothic-style building was the first cathedral built on such a monumental scale and became the prototype for other French cathedrals including Amiens and Chartres or Rheims. There are 3 wide portals on the frontal west façade above which is the Gallery of 28 Judean Kings above which are both gargoyles and grotesques. The rear and eastern side of the building is supported by architectural supports known as flying buttresses.  Over the past century, the Cathedral has undergone restoration, with the last efforts completed in 2001.

Vincennes PalaceAnother cathedral under recent renovation is that found on the grounds of The Château de Vincennes, a castle built in 1150 by Louis VII, just outside the center of Paris.  The “country living” aspect of the area changed in 1671 when King Louis XIV decided to move the entire court to the newly completed Versailles Palace.  This area was considered to be the “Versailles of East Paris.”  The construction of Sainte-Chapelle began just before the death of Charles V in 1380 and took nearly 150 years to complete due to a building halt at the beginning of 15th Century.  It was intended to hold the relicts of the Passion and was listed as a Historical Monument in 1853. Late in the 20st Century, December storms, with winds in excess of 200 km/hr, ravaged the Sainte-Chapelle.  This resulted in extensive water damage in the cathedral which has been partially renovated since then.

Tour Eiffel 2012The most iconoclastic structure in Paris is Tour Eiffel, located on Champ de Mars.  The tower, originally controversial because of its design, is an iron lattice tower named after the engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built it.  It is the tallest structure in the city and can be seen from across the city; from the summit of La Basilique du Sacré Coeur de Montmartre and the top of Arc de Triomphe, to a casual stroll along La Rive Gauche.  The tour, constructed at the end of the 19th Century from 1887 to 1889 served as the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair.  It is not only a global cultural icon of France but one of the most recognizable structures in the world.  In an effort to accommodate all visitors, renovations including the addition of handicapped accessible routes began in 2012 leaving the second level closed for the next few months.  The panoramic view from the top of Tour Eiffel is breathtaking on a bright, clear day.  Even on a somewhat overcast day, it is impressive.