Paris DAY 3: Versailles, La Défense, Montmartre & nocturnal Eiffel Tower

Another day is beginning, hooray! Although waking up to the cold and chilly weather is not the best type of waking up, our plans were so huge, and we could not be restrained by any absurd rain!

The first stop of today were Versailles. Both museum and the gardens. After standing in line to reach the entrance for like an hour we finally got in and a great history-filled tour could begin.

The Palace of Versailles has been listed as a World Heritage Site for 30 years and is one of the greatest achievements in French 17th century art. Louis XIII’s old hunting pavilion was transformed and extended by his son, Louis XIV, when he installed the Court and government there in 1682. A succession of kings continued to embellish the Palace up until the French Revolution. Today the Palace contains 2300 rooms spread over 63 154 m2.

In 1789, the French Revolution forced Louis XVI to leave Versailles for Paris. The Palace would never again be a royal residence and a new role was assigned to it in the 19th century, when it became the Museum of the History of France in 1837 by order of King Louis-Philippe, who came to the throne in 1830. The rooms of the Palace were then devoted to housing new collections of paintings and sculptures representing great figures and important events that had marked the History of France. These collections continued to be expanded until the early 20th century at which time, under the influence of its most eminent curator, Pierre de Nolhac, the Palace rediscovered its historical role when the whole central part was restored to the appearance it had had as a royal residence during the Ancien Régime.

The Palace of Versailles never played the protective role of a medieval stronghold. Beginning in the Renaissance period, the term “chateau” was used to refer to the rural location of a luxurious residence, as opposed to an urban palace. It was thus common to speak of the Louvre “Palais” in the heart of Paris, and the “Château” of Versailles out in the country. Versailles was only a village at the time. It was destroyed in 1673 to make way for the new town Louis XIV wished to create. Currently the centrepiece of Versailles urban planning, the Palace now seems a far cry from the countryside residence it once was. Nevertheless, the garden end on the west side of the Estate of Versailles is still adjoined by woods and agriculture.


Visitors looking through the central window in the Hall of Mirrors will see the Grande Perspective stretching away towards the horizon from the Water Parterre. This unique east-west perspective originally dates from before the reign of Louis XIV, but it was developed and extended by the gardener André Le Nôtre, who widened the Royal Way and dug the Grand Canal.

In 1661 Louis XIV entrusted André Le Nôtre with the creation and renovation of the gardens of Versailles, which he considered just as important as the Palace. Works on the gardens were started at the same time as the work on the palace and lasted for 40 or so years. During this time André Le Nôtre collaborated with the likes of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, superintendent of buildings from 1664 to 1683, who managed the project, and Charles Le Brun, who was made first painter in January 1664 and provided the drawings for a large number of the statues and fountains. Last but not least, each project was reviewed by the King himself, who was keen to see “every detail”. Not long after, the architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart, having been made rirst architect and superintendent of buildings, built the Orangery and simplified the outlines of the park, in particular by modifying or opening up some of the groves.

Creating the gardens was a monumental task. Large amounts of soil had to be shifted to level the ground, create parterres, build the Orangery and dig out the fountains and Canal in places previously occupied solely by meadows and marshes. Trees were brought in from different regions of France. Thousands of men, sometimes even entire regiments, took part in this immense project.

To maintain the design, the garden needed to be replanted approximately once every 100 years. Louis XVI did so at the beginning of his reign, and the undertaking was next carried out during the reign of Napoleon III. Following damage caused by a series of storms in the late 20th century, including one in December 1999, which was the most devastating, the garden has been fully replanted and now boasts a fresh, youthful appearance similar to how it would have looked to Louis XIV.

Water features of all kinds are an important part of French gardens, even more so than plant designs and groves. At Versailles, they include waterfalls in some of the groves, spurts of water in the fountains, and the calm surface of the water reflecting the sky and sun in the Water Parterre or the Grand Canal.

Also, made of bronze, marble or lead, the 386 works of art in Versailles (including 221 decorating the gardens) make it the biggest open-air sculpture museum in the world. The vast space in garden at the foot of the palace and the vast wooded area of the park allowed Le Nôtre to develop the principles he had applied at Vaux-le-Vicomte on a greater scale.

The scale, height and pure lines of the Orangery, which sits just below the palace, make it one of Jules Hardouin-Mansart’s crowning achievements, demonstrating his talent as a great architect. Orange trees from Portugal, Spain and Italy, lemon trees, oleander, palm and pomegranate trees, some more than 200 years old, are all housed in the Orangery during the winter and spread out across its parterre in summer.


In an attempt to gain some brief respite from courtly etiquette, the kings of Versailles built themselves more intimate spaces close to the main palace. Adjoining the Petit Parc, the estate of Trianon is home to the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon palaces, as well as the Queen’s Hamlet and a variety of ornamental gardens.

Construction on the estate began under Louis XIV, who had the Grand Trianon Palace built at the far end of the northern branch of the Grand Canal. The estate is perhaps most closely associated with Queen Marie-Antoinette. The wife of Louis XVI regularly sought refuge at the Petit Trianon, where she commissioned marvellous landscaped gardens centred around a hamlet of cottages built in the rustic style then in vogue. Designed for more intimate moments, this royal estate contains architectural gems and magnificent gardens whose diversity and ornamentation give it a unique charm.

The Grand Trianon is a unique architectural composition featuring a central colonnaded gallery, or “Peristyle”, opening onto the central courtyard on one side and the gardens on the other. Construction began in 1687, directed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart under the watchful eye of Louis XIV. The king used this new palace as a private residence where he could spend time with Madame de Maintenon. It was originally known as the “Marble Trianon” on account of the pink marble panels which adorned the palace’s elegant façades. The majority of the apartments have retained their original appearance, including the sumptuous Mirror Room where the king would hold council. The ornate geometric flowerbeds of the French gardens were planted with tens of thousands of flowers, a spectacle which was greatly admired by Louis XIV’s visitors.

The Petit Trianon, considered to be royal architect Ange-Jacques Gabriel’s masterpiece, is something of a manifesto for the neo-classical movement. Completed in 1768, it provided Louis XV and his new mistress the Comtesse Du Barry with the privacy which was so sorely lacking at the palace.
This new royal residence was in fact an extension of the king’s passion for the botanical sciences: he was keen to have a home in the heart of the gardens to which he devoted so much of his time and which, by the time of his death, were among the most richly-stocked in Europe. With the exception of the French Garden, Louis XV’s beloved gardens were thoroughly overhauled to make way for new, landscaped spaces after his death. Marie-Antoinette, who had such trouble adapting to life in the court, received the Petit Trianon as a gift from Louis XVI in 1774 and developed a great attachment to this estate.

The Queen’s Hamlet, constructed between 1783 and 1786 under the supervision of Richard Mique, is an excellent example of the contemporary fascination with the charms of rural life. Inspired by the traditional rustic architecture of Normandy, this peculiar model village included a windmill and dairy, as well as a dining room, salon, billiard room and boudoir. Although it was reserved primarily for the education of her children, Marie-Antoinette also used the hamlet for promenades and hosting guests.

Meanwhile the Queen’s Theatre, inaugurated in 1780, is the only building to have survived fully intact and unchanged since the eighteenth century. The queen watched private performances here, but also took to the stage herself, another of her great passions.

After a few amazing hours spent there (please define one whole day for this, 6 hours were too few for us :/), we headed to the Parisian modern quarter La Défense for late lunch, to see the architecture of skyscrapers and shop a bit in a huge shopping centre called Les 4 Temps.

La Défense is the prime high-rise office district of Paris. Many of Paris’ tallest buildings can be found here. At the end of the First World War, plans were made to develop the axis from the Arc de Triomphe at the Etoile to La Défense, an area at the edge of the center of Paris. Numerous plans were submitted for the Voie Triumphale or Triumphal Way as it was known, most of them with endless rows of impressive skyscrapers in mostly Modernist style. Many of the plans which were submitted in 1930 came from renowned architects like Le Corbusier and Auguste Perret. None of these plans were realized, mainly due to the Great Depression in the 1930s.

In 1931 though, the authorities organized a new competition, but the intent was to limit the height of the buildings along the Triumphal Way. Only at the end of the long avenue, at the Défense, were towers allowed. This was recommended by the authorities as towers close to the center would obstruct the view on the Etoile.

Most of the 35 (French) entries in the competition were either classical or modernist in style, but again none of the plans were actually realized due to lack of funding. The main focus now moved from the Triumphal way to the Défense area, or La Défense. The name défense originates from the monument “La Défense de Paris”, which was erected at this site in 1883 to commemorate the war of 1870.

In 1951, the Défense site was chosen as an office center. In 1958, development of the area was started by a special agency, the Etablissement Public d’Aménagement de la Défense.

The first plan had two rows of skyscrapers of equal height. In 1964, a plan was approved to have twenty office towers of 25 stories each. Little of the development on the Défense was actually built according to this plan, as most companies started to press for taller office towers.

The result is a mix of mostly cheap towers of different heights. The tallest of them, the GAN tower, measured 179 meters.

The height of several towers, and in particular the GAN tower caused a public outcry as the “forest of towers” disturbs the view on the Arc de Triomphe as seen from the Etoile.

Partly in response to this criticism a new monument was built at the entrance of the Défense as a counterweight for the Arc de Triomphe: The Tête Défense , also known as the Grande Arche de la Défense.

The project to build the “Grande Arche” (Great Arch) was supported by the French president Mitterrand who wanted a twentieth century version of the Arc de Triomphe. The design of Danish architect Otto von Spreckelsen looks more like a cube-shaped building than a triumphal arch. The 106 meters wide building has a central archway. The sides of the cube contain offices while the rooftop has a belvedere that until 2010 was open to visitors.

It was downpouring soo much, so we weren’t really able to see anything and just had to hide in the shopping centre all the time. At least the lunch was great. After some time the rain had finally stopped and we could move to another destination – Montmartre.

Montmartre is talked about by Parisians the way New Yorkers talk about the Village: It’s not what it used to be, it’s like Disneyland; the artists can’t afford to live here anymore, too many tourists etc. There is some truth in these opinions, but there are two ways of approaching this incredibly unique village within the metropolis. The first is to follow the herd instinct and stampede your way up the famous hill, take a picture of yourself on the steps of the basilica, buy an overpriced crepe at the Place du Tertre, get conned into having your portrait sketched, and walk back down clutching newly bought key-rings, postcards, gaudy T-shirts feeling a little mystified about what all the fuss is about.

The second method is to keep a map in your pocket (just in case) and try to lose yourself in the steep and cobbled streets of one of the most historic and interesting neighborhoods in Paris. Remember that the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur (the big white church) sits on the crest of the hill, so as long as you are heading uphill there is little possibility of being lost for long. At the bottom of the hill is the Boulevard de Clichy which is lined with bars, kebab shops, and more sex shops and peep-shows than you can possibly pretend you are not looking at. If you think of a triangle, consider the base of it to be the section of Blvd. de Clichy and Blvd. de Rochechouart between the metro stations Blanche and Anvers. The tip of the triangle would be the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur. The area between these three points is roughly the area of interest.

You can begin your walk at any point along the base of the hill, or take the metro to Abbesses station and step out into the heart of Montmartre. Because all the great poets have told us the journey is more important than the destination, I recommend you start at metro Blanche (Moulin Rouge) or metro Anvers and gradually enter the “village”. This will make it feel more like a pilgrimage toward the place that nurtured most of the great artists and writers living in France this past century.

Exiting the Anvers metro station you will notice a marked change in the environment if you are used to the left bank scene. The crowd here is edgier and faster, neon signs flash, pimps lean in doorways, sex shops sell everything you had never thought of and countless nationalities mix on the crowded sidewalks. While Montmarte is gentrified and somewhat “sanitized” these days, the neighboring areas are certainly not. Barbes-Rochechouart to the east can be a little rough at night, so don’t go wandering there alone with your camera and guidebooks at night. In the daytime it’s a wonderful place to buy anything from socks to television in massive budget shops such as Tatti for household supplies, and Darty for electronics. The streets are also lined with stalls selling towels, underwear, sheets, linens, etc. for ridiculously cheap prices.  Just watch your wallet – the bustling street market is a great place to have it lifted. Just across the street you will notice a beautiful building falling into decay – the Elysees Montmartre Theatre. It’s said to be the oldest can-can dance theatre in Paris, and is obviously underrated and overshadowed because of the famous Moulin Rouge at the other end of the street.

You will notice throngs of people in the little Rue de Steinkerque. The street has recently been infected by T-shirt shops and trinket peddlers, but the two Sympa stores with big red signs are an excellent place to find cheap clothing, sometimes brand names that are either irregular or just fell off the back of some truck. On this street you will also find interesting fabric stores as well as Columbia Coffee, one of the rare take-out coffee shops in Paris for those hardcore New Yorkers who need their fix on the go. I actually appreciate the concept of “to go” coffee, as do others who don’t have three hours to spare in a steamy window with a café au lait.

Back on the Rue de Steinkerque, walk until the street ends at Place St. Pierre. Facing you are the grassy and terraced gardens leading you to the basilica. The gardens were once gypsum quarries, hence the odd design. With the brightly lit merry go round churning out its nostalgic tunes and the imposing church white against the sky, it’s time to take the obligatory photos no one will look at. If you are hungry, grab a crepe or sandwich from the stand on the left, or the pleasant café with the best view of the gardens and basilica on your right.

On the close Rue de Ronsard is an interesting museum (St. Pierre) with local exhibitions, a gift shop and a nice café all set inside an old renovated warehouse. Across the street is the Marche St. Pierre, a multi level fabric store which rivals anything I have ever seen. If you are a designer, a home decorator or simply curious, you have to visit this incredible business which carries every type of fabric imaginable and holds an entire office for cutting and ordering on every floor. The beauty of it is that it exudes the feel of a shop in the 1950s and not the streamlined order of a modern department store.

Go back to the gardens facing the basilica and you will find that to the left and up the hill are the steps and the funicular  which you can ride to the top. Steps can be, of course, found there too. The steps are of the classic Montmartre variety – steep and lined by pretty lampposts and deciduous trees. Despite the crowds, the view is the most spectacular in Paris. You can get even better view when you will decide to climb apx 300 more steps to the top of basilica! It costs only 3€ and in my opinion it’s definitely worth it. All around the year are there street musician who perform at the bottom of the steps, using the architecture as a kind of natural amphitheatre with an already captive audience.

The Basilica Sacre-Coeur was only built a century ago, after the French were embarrassed by a brief but successful occupation by the Germans in 1870. It wasn’t yet Hitler, but Bismarck’s Prussian army. The Basilica is based in Roman architecture and took over 40 years to build (more than it took to build the Parthenon!). From a distance, the stark white domes are powerful and imposing. During WWII, 13 bombs are said to have landed on the church, but without resulting in casualties, which lent the place special status among the local people.

Another close church is even more interesting historically. The Church of St. Pierre which is one of the oldest in Paris and even contains some original Roman columns.

The name Montmartre was originally Roman meaning “Mount of Mars” but was later changed  to “Mount of Martyrs” or Montmartre. Across the street is the Place du Tertre where the legends of 20th century art used to roam. Now it’s filled with watercolors, portrait sketchers and caricaturists. Picasso, Vlamenck, Derain, Soutine, Modigliani, Van Gogh and countless others lived and worked in these narrow streets.

From the square you can wander the packed streets or sit in a café but be warned that the prices are higher and you will most likely be surrounded by tour groups and howling children. It’s much better to duck down a side street or go to a café nearer to Abbesses. If you are interested in Dali, you can visit the museum at 11 Rue Poulbot. In any case, follow the street and if you want to see one of the oldest authentic bakeries in Paris, take the steps down the Rue Norvins to where it intersects Rue des Saules. Follow this road downhill and you will begin to enter the most interesting part of historic Montmarte filled with narrow cobblestone streets and sometimes beautiful private gardens. Now you realize why this was truly considered a village once, set outside the city limits. At that time it was covered with vineyards and gypsum quarries and was a real working class neighborhood to which the artists came for cheap rent and tax free wine. Now the former studios and crumbling apartments have been converted into huge lofts or even houses with private garages, alarms and video surveillance.

On the close Rue Cortot you can visit the Montmartre Museum. The atmosphere in this old renovated manor house is impressive, along with a beautiful inner garden. Eric Satie, the composer, lived here at one time, and there is a room dedicated to him inside. Maurice Utrillo once lived here too, as did the famous Greek engraver and painter Demetrius Galanis.

Also be sure to visit the famous Bateau Lavoire at #13 Place Emile-Goudeau. Picasso’s studio was here and at times Braque, Juan Gris, Modigliani and Apollinaire all lived here. It’s without a doubt the most famous art “studio” in the world. It’s now a restaurant, but in terms of art history, it’s a much more important landmark than the better known Moulin Rouge.

And in the night we decided to watch the Eiffel Tower blinking from the one of the close squares. Another splendid and exhausting day,  already looking forward for tomorrow!


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