Classic sights in the City of Light

From catacombs and cathedrals to towers and palaces, Paris is home to some of France’s most intriguing locations, both above and below ground.

Get to the heart of Paris with a tour of five of its star sights, from the heights of the Eiffel Tower to the depths of the catacombs, and a day trip to the splendour of Versailles.

Eiffel Tower
The world is filled with buildings and monuments named after monarchs, generals and businessmen, but it’s rare to find great landmarks that credit the architects or engineers who actually built them. The giant tower that greeted visitors to the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889 was planned to be merely a temporary construction. Perhaps that’s why it was excused from bearing the name of some national symbol or lofty ideal, and instead commemorates the genius of Gustave Eiffel.

To appreciate the impact of the Eiffel Tower on a Parisian of 1889, consider the timeline of the record-breaking structures that came before. The Great Pyramid at Giza set an early standard, at over 140 metres tall. Much later, a few medieval cathedrals managed to edge past it. By 1888, the tallest thing made by man was the 169-metre Washington Monument – a giant stone obelisk. Impressive, but still something that a time-travelling ancient Egyptian would have instinctively understood. So for 4,400 years the ceiling of architectural achievement had been raised only modestly when Gustave Eiffel opened an entirely new chapter, with a tower more than 300 metres high, and made not out of stone like all its predecessors, but wrought iron.

‘Gustave Eiffel knew how to master the most advanced technology of the time,’ says Stéphane Dieu, who looks after the tower’s heritage. ‘For a start, the foundations of the tower’s four pillars had to be built in damp soil close to the river. Above all, it was his faith and love of science that guided him – you can see that from the frieze around the first floor, which gives the names of 72 French scientists.’

The commercial success of a 300-metre observation tower was only possible of course thanks to the invention of the elevator. Four sets of diagonal lifts climb the tower’s splayed feet to the mid-levels, through a lattice of girders that join in crosses and starbursts. The second journey is a vertical one, up the centre of the structure. As the cabin glides ever higher, the four edges of the tower close in around it. Just before it seems like the iron is about to run out, the lift stops, and opens its doors.

Solving technical challenges was only part of Eiffel’s work. When construction had hardly begun, some 50 of the leading French artists and writers of the day signed a joint letter to the press, condemning this ‘black and gigantic factory chimney’, which would crush the great monuments of Paris under its ‘barbaric mass’. Eiffel wrote a lengthy rebuttal: ‘Why should something that is admirable in Egypt become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?’ he asked. Two years later, the tower received nearly two million visitors during the exhibition.

And yet Eiffel’s supreme achievement was meant to be dismantled by 1909. It was only saved on his insistence that it could serve as a testing ground for scientific experiments and later as a radio transmitter. Bridges and buildings by Eiffel survive from Hungary to Bolivia. He even designed the internal framework for the Statue of Liberty. But if it hadn’t been for Eiffel’s determination, the tower that bears his name might be remembered today only from a few yellowing postcards.

Notre-Dame
Every cathedral has a face it presents to the world, but somehow Notre-Dame’s feels particularly expressive. At the top, two square towers with dark, shuttered arches stare out over the rooftops of Paris. In the middle, a rose window and a filigree of stonework confirm the uncanny skill of medieval masons. And at the bottom, three sets of doors are surrounded by sculptures of saints and sinners forming a bible without words.

Like any human face, the cathedral façade has its slight flaws (you can still see the small square holes where the wooden scaffolding went in eight centuries ago), and looks more real for being slightly asymmetrical – just enough to avoid monotony, and perhaps also to make a god-fearing sign of respect before the only creator of perfection.

The queue to get in passes by a bronze marker in the cobblestones, denoting ‘point zéro’ – the spot from which all French road distances are measured. As an official centre point, this makes a certain amount of sense. Notre-Dame is on an island, washed by the strong current of the Seine, that was one of earliest parts of Paris to be settled in Roman times – conveniently neutral ground in the city’s Left Bank- Right Bank divide.

In 1160, Bishop Maurice de Sully judged Paris’s existing Saint-Étienne cathedral inadequate, and the construction of a replacement began three years later. The bishop never saw the finished building, which took shape over more than a century. During construction, the builders were worried enough about the growing structure to add the then-novel safety measure of flying buttresses. As an architectural statement, they must have betrayed a certain lack of confidence at first, but time has been the test, and now they seem at one with the medieval tracery. Inside, the soaring ceilings are further proof that stone can convey delicacy as well as bulk.

A lot of what appears medieval however is really neo-medieval. The French Revolution took an anti-clerical turn, and the cathedral suffered for it. Most of its bells were melted down and in 1793 the 28 royal statues on the main façade were vandalised, their heads hacked off – the crowd had allegedly mistaken these Biblical rulers for kings of France. By 1831, when Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the cathedral had become a dilapidated embarrassment. The architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was brought in to bring Notre-Dame back to glory in the 1840s. As with many of his restoration projects however, he took some creative liberties along the way.

These include Notre-Dame’s famous grotesques, or chimeras – not properly gargoyles, as they serve as decoration rather than waterspouts. A dimpled, well-trodden spiral staircase leads to the Galerie des Chimères. A herd of grotesques perch on this balcony walkway between the west towers – sinewy, bearded devils, but also a pelican and even an elephant. They weren’t on the original blueprints, but then again Notre-Dame never got the spires that were meant to top its twin square towers. Perhaps a great cathedral is always a work in progress.

The Louvre
The largest painting on display at the Louvre is The Wedding Feast at Cana, painted by Paolo Veronese in 1563. It covers a whole wall of the Salle des États, and in any other room it would be the focus of attention. On the wall immediately facing it however is a modest-sized portrait in smoky colours of a woman smiling enigmatically. Thanks to the Mona Lisa, known in France as La Joconde, the figures in Veronese’s masterpiece spend most of their time looking out onto a throng of people with their backs turned.

The world’s most visited museum has plenty of similar treasures hiding in plain sight, beginning with the earliest work on display – a 9,000-year old human figure in ghostly white plaster from Ain Ghazal in Jordan. Tutankhamun of Egypt lived closer in time to us than to the people who made this statue – a whisper from a nameless past. Now on loan to the Louvre, its present home (Room D, Near Eastern Antiquities) is generally a place of serenity.

‘We almost don’t want to say which rooms are less visited than they should be – we would like to keep them quiet!’ says Daniel Soulié, who has written several books on the Louvre. ‘The whole Richelieu wing and the second floor, the galleries of French sculpture and objets d’art, the paintings of the Northern European schools – these are fabulous collections which don’t get so many visitors.’

The Louvre gets its particular character because it evolved into a museum rather than being designed as one. It began around 1200 as a fortress built to protect the western walls of Paris, its chilly foundations still visible in the basement of the museum. Soon enveloped by an expanding city, the fortress lost its defensive function, and in its place came a royal palace. Several changes later, this is the building that stands on the eastern side of the great glass pyramid.

IM Pei’s bold, geometric addition to the Louvre attracted some criticism when it was built in 1989 to give the museum the single, grand entrance it had never had. But it is only the latest stage in eight centuries of reinvention, in which the opening of a public museum in 1793 was just one milestone. To the west of where the pyramid is today was another royal palace, the Tuileries, and it was a long-term ambition of the later French kings to link up both residences with two parallel wings, creating a great central courtyard. In the end, it was an emperor, Napoleon III, nephew of the more famous Napoleon, who completed the project in the 1850s. In 1871, he was overthrown and the Tuileries burnt down. The grand central courtyard remains open on its western side.

‘What Napoleon III had in mind when he built most of the buildings that you see around the pyramid was to gather together at the Louvre and the Tuileries all the major organs of the state – imperial residence, government ministries, a library and a museum,’ says Daniel. Before it was home to the Mona Lisa, the Salle des États was the venue for state openings of parliament.

Older royal reminders are also threaded through the museum. In room 26 of the Egyptian galleries, a headless statue of the boy-king Tutankhamun is watched over by portraits of Louis XIII and his queen, Anne of Austria – their great-great-great-great-grandson Louis XVI and his own queen would come to a similar end in real life. And in the Grande Galerie, built between 1595 and 1610 to link the old Louvre to the Tuileries, French kings carried on the practice of ‘healing’ sufferers of the skin condition scrofula with a royal touch of the hand, as proof of their divinely ordained powers. Yet despite the parade of kings and emperors who have passed through its corridors, the Louvre has never looked as splendid as it does now.

Catacombs
The City of Light has a darker twin. While the Paris that knows sun and rain is home to some two million people at its centre, another six million Parisians can be called on during visiting hours in their parallel city, 20 metres below street level. Or at least, what’s left of them.

The Paris catacombs were a quick solution to a mounting problem. By the late 18th century, the medieval cemeteries could not keep up with the growth of the city. Old graves were dug up and bones tossed into attic-like charnel houses to make room for more burials, but neighbours complained that milk and soup would spoil within hours because of the miasmas wafting their way, and in one notorious case the walls of a bone-repository broke under the strain, spilling a morbid cascade into nearby houses. This was the Age of Enlightenment, and something had to be done.

Luckily, under the hill of Montparnasse to the south of the city, Paris already possessed a network of tunnels, built from Roman times onwards to quarry high-quality limestone for buildings such as Notre-Dame. From 1786, the old city-centre cemeteries were gradually emptied, and their contents brought to the mineshafts in a nightly stream of hearses accompanied by the chanting of priests. The last of the transfers to the catacombs was made in 1860, by which time vast suburban cemeteries such as Père Lachaise had relieved the burden on the city.

The level of the catacombs is reached by means of a spiral staircase, but there is a long preamble of tunnels before the bones themselves. Many still bear a black line painted along the roof to help 19th-century quarry workers navigate in low light, and water drips from the ceiling in places. The catacombs proper begin with a doorway over which is written: ‘Arrète! C’est içi l’empire de la mort’ (‘Stop! Here is the empire of death’). This is the first of many cheery inscriptions that were designed, in the words of the quarries’ overseer Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, to ‘break the sinister and dark monotony’ of the catacombs, and to put the living into a philosophical frame of mind.

‘Think that in the morning you may not last until evening, and that in the evening you may not last until morning,’ reads one. ‘God is not the author of death,’ reminds another. The embankments of bones on either side of the passageways have signs stating the original cemeteries and dates of reburial. Passing these carefully stacked communities of the dead feels at times strangely like wandering through a sepulchral wine cellar, but even here the human urge to be decorative expresses itself in patterns of skulls and femurs.

The first bones had been thrown in haphazardly, in a rationalist 18th century that just wanted these unsavoury remains put somewhere safely out of sight. But when burials resumed after a hiatus caused by the turmoil of the French Revolution, Romanticism had become the zeitgeist, and the catacombs were refashioned into a place where visitors could enjoy a kind of dignified melancholy. Their modern successors are returned to the surface by way of an unmarked door, onto an unremarkable Parisian backstreet, perhaps now taking a little more care crossing the road on the way back to the Métro station.

Versailles
A half-hour ride west from the centre of Paris on the commuter train, the town and suburb of Versailles has grown up around a palace that stands as perhaps the most splendid example of control-freakery the world has ever seen. In 1661, the young Louis XIV embarked on a massive expansion of his father’s old hunting lodge, to glorify his rule and secure his crown against two troublesome quarters – Parisians, and ambitious nobles who might build private power bases in the provinces.

French kings had long been in the habit of roaming between various country châteaux and residences in the capital that were uncomfortably exposed to unruly Parisian crowds. In 1651, one mob had even barged into the 12-year-old king’s bedchamber. From 1682, Louis moved permanently to Versailles, and required most of his court to live where he could keep an eye on them, in his ever-growing palace.

On entering the state apartments, once the immediate impact of the coloured marble and gilt has worn off, a running theme emerges – a sunburst with a face at the centre, repeated in the design. In Louis XIV’s propaganda, he was the Sun King, and solar metaphors were given free rein. Versailles’ original building plan followed a kind of yin and yang, with the king’s apartments and the Salon of War in one wing, and the queen’s rooms and the Salon of Peace in the other. But ultimately Louis moved his bedchamber to the very centre of the palace, facing the rising sun.

Every morning at eight, he would be woken in his canopied bed, watched over by a gilded figure representing France herself. Over the next two hours, up to a hundred courtiers would crowd into his room to join in the ritual of the ‘lever’ (‘rising’), where handing a shirt or a glove to the king as he dressed was a social and political honour calculated, like all Versailles etiquette, down to the last degree.

Yet despite the formality of the court, security could be surprisingly relaxed. Almost anyone was allowed into the palace provided they met a few minimum standards of attire, and even then gentlemen could rent the required dress-sword at the entrance if they had none of their own. ‘There are nations where the majesty of kings consists, in large part, in never letting themselves be seen,’ Louis XIV once said. ‘But that is not the genius of our French nation.’ The curious throng from all over the world who process through the Hall of Mirrors six days a week are unwittingly re-enacting a drama scripted by the Sun King.

In its display and ritual, Versailles was a suit made to fit its creator. But Louis XV and Louis XVI who followed him were more private characters, as was the wife of the last, Marie Antoinette of Austria. Even a Habsburg princess like her found the etiquette at Versailles oppressive, and she escaped when she could to her own miniature palace – the Petit Trianon, at the other end of the gardens. Although she never said ‘Let them eat cake’, the mock hamlet she had built in the grounds was a source of much ridicule at the time.

Versailles’ reign ended on 6 October 1789, when an angry crowd overwhelmed the palace guard, forcing the royal family to return to Paris, and finally sending them to the guillotine in 1793. The first and last piece of pomp in Versailles is the equestrian statue of Louis XIV at the entrance. Here the king sits, with his back turned on the château he willed into being and which his successors could never fully make their own, and his arm pointed down the grand avenue that leads back to Paris.

The article 'Classic sights in the City of Light' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.