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June 13, 2018

Walking Around Paris

by Rosemary West

The architectural style of Paris is immediately recognizable. The underlying color palette is beige, cream, and gray. Baroque, Neoclassical, and Art Nouveau blend perfectly with the ubiquitous Haussmann apartments of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. All around, we see gray roofs with dormer windows and clustered chimney pots. Perhaps the most immediately identifiable Parisian feature is the decorative iron work on the windows and balconies.


Of course, the city's most well-known bit of ironwork is this:


Built for the 1889 Universal Exposition, the Eiffel Tower was scheduled to be torn down in 1909, when the license to keep it standing expired. However, it was kept in place because it had proved useful for radio communications and science experiments. Its growing popularity eventually made it a beloved symbol of Paris. When we visited the city in 2010, it was still possible to walk right up to the base of the tower and wander around the plaza below it. Sadly, there is now an ugly metal fence around the tower, and visitors must line up to pass through security checkpoints. Construction is underway to replace the metal fence with bulletproof glass.


Hundreds of people waiting to get near the tower.

While that special blend of architecture defines central Paris, not every part of the larger metropolitan area has it. We stayed in La Défense, a business district on the western edge of the city. Its glass and concrete skyscrapers could be in just about any big city in the world.


The most unusual structure in La Défense is the Grande Arche, a 364-foot-high monument and office building that opened in 1989 as part of the celebration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution.


The arch is at the west end of the "Axe historique" (historical axis), a straight line of monuments and historical buildings that runs through Paris, with the Louvre at the east end, five miles away.


Looking toward the Arc de Triomphe, three miles away, from the top of the Grande Arche.

We were told that the Grande Arche is so big that Notre Dame cathedral could fit under it. It would be an odd sight, the plain concrete cube juxtaposed with the church's elaborate gothic design.


Construction on Notre Dame began in 1160 and was completed by 1345. In the following centuries, the cathedral was occasionally subjected to vandalism, harsh remodeling, repurposing, and restoration. During the height of the French Revolution, extremists mistook the statues of Biblical kings on the church's exterior for French kings, and beheaded them. The statues were eventually replaced. What no one knew at the time was that someone had rescued the statues' severed heads and buried them for safekeeping. They were discovered in 1977, and now reside in the Cluny Museum.

Notre Dame is known for the fanciful creatures perched high on its galleries and gutters. Some are gargoyles, serving as waterspouts, and others are grotesques or chimeras, whose only function is to decorate the building and perhaps watch over the city below.


These critters occupy many of the medieval buildings in town.


Atop the St. Jacques Tower.


One of many on the Sacré-Coeur basilica.

Another reminder of medieval times can be seen underfoot. Cobblestones have been used to pave the streets of Paris for the past 1000 years. In the 1850s, city planners began replacing the stones in some areas with more modern materials, but they still constitute about two thirds of the streets. Every year, tons of them are dug up as streets are rebuilt or paved. In the past, they went into landfills, but the city now sells them to contractors. One entrepreneur bought five tons of them to resell as souvenirs. We walked over many miles of these stones during our two weeks here.


Next: We look at art.



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