Paris: The Heart of Europe (and some American History too!)

There are some places you just can never visit enough.  For me, those are places so rich in either physical beauty or history that you feel like you can't get through it all in one lifetime.  Few places can combine both of those qualities, but one of the places that does check both boxes is Paris.  While Paris is no secret to most, it's a place that you can't learn enough about before you go because once you think you know a place well, then you find something else out about it and you wonder how you ever missed that.  Paris has landmarks on nearly every corner, history in every building, and a culture that has for many years been erroneously besmirched.  Are you impressed that I worked the phrase erroneously besmirched into this post?  Of course you are, don't be ridiculous.  I digress, we have been to Paris several times and never met anyone but nice people who are welcoming to all.

I'm going to skip the section on how to get to Paris.  Get on a plane and tell them you want to go to Europe, that should get you there.  Well, at least make sure the plane is going to Europe, otherwise an air marshal may tackle you.  I will again stress the worst part of Paris is Charles De Gaulle Airport.  The layout is ridiculous, and it's still a half hour ride from the airport to the city center without traffic (which I'm certain has never happened), but there's little you can do about that.  Once you're in town, buy the Paris metro pass.  They're not exactly cheap, but they have an extensive subway system that will get you close to wherever you want to go, so the convenience is worth it.  Be sure you understand the differences between the subway and the regional trains.  The metro pass covers both, but the subways are the traditional subterranean trains, while the regional trains are usually double decker trains that run out into the suburbs.  They have a different numbering system, so check on Google Maps before you head out somewhere which subway or train you need to get on.  While Paris was not shut down by any means, and sadly after we left they had to take much more drastic measures, the amount of people that were there was significantly less than our previous visits there.  Traveling during the outbreak of a worldwide pandemic surely cuts down on the traffic.  We never had a hard time finding anything to eat, but there were less people walking around at night.

If you go to Paris, you're legally obligated to visit the Louvre, and rightfully so.  If you go to Paris a second time, you should probably visit the Louvre again to see the 90% of the stuff that you missed while you were standing in line to see the Mona Lisa.  I recommend buying the Museum Pass that allows you to pick an entrance time.  If you can get the opening time slot like we have both times, you can get right up to the Mona Lisa before all the slower visitors get there.  Several years ago we were in the room with it for about five minutes before the slow wave of humanity made it down there.  The Louvre is arguably the biggest, and most important, museum in the world.  It rivals any other museum for both artistic and historic artifacts.  Besides the collection of some of the most admired paintings in the world, it also houses rare antiquities like the crown and sword of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor.  They have extensive wings on Assyrian, Egyptian, and Greek history. They are also the home to the crown jewels of the now defunct French monarchy.  There are, shockingly, other famous works of art in the Louvre such as the Liberty Leading the People, The Coronation of Napoleon, The Raft of the Medusa (this painting is quite unique because this ship of stranded sailors has no feet in the image, apparently the artist found feet to hard to paint), The Lacemaker, and countless other works.  I wish I could tell you where one of these paintings is located, but check out the pictures below. In one 14th Century painting, a monk has apparently been cut in half and is flying.  So, I guess he's got that going for him.  You also have the classic works of sculpture like The Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Venus de Milo, and the Dying Slave.  You can't miss The Winged Victory, but while you're enjoying it, be sure to take observe it from the side it was intended.  If you're facing it, go stand on the ledge to its left.  From that vantage point you'll be looking at it as the sculpture wanted.  When you're ready to get away from the crowds, go up to the apartments of Napoleon III (the nephew of the infamous French ruler), who himself took over France for about twenty years.  You'll see a palace fit for a king, even though it was a title he rejected. You should plan to spend 4-5 hours minimum in the Louvre, and you'll still be missing quite a lot.  Remember, it will take you multiple visits to ever see it all, and that may be a tall task. 

The next day walk to the nearby second most famous art museum in Paris, the Musée d'Orsay.  Please don't try to visit the Louvre and the d'Orsay in the same day.  They both deserve more time, and you'll walk yourself ragged trying to do both.  While the Musée d'Orsay has gained a reputation as one of the top art museums in the world, it's really not that old.  Once the main train station in Paris, it was only converted into a museum in the 1980's.  Inside this opulent building that reminds you of times long past, you'll see many works of art that once were housed in the Louvre.  The d'Orsay's focus is on works of art from the 19th Century, primarily the Impressionist works of artists like Monet, Degas, Manet, Matisse, Pissaro, Renoir, Sisley, and Van Gogh.  There's even the unique portrait of Claude Monet painted by fellow Impressionist master Pierre-August Renoir.  This museum uses the immense space to house some of the largest paintings I've ever seen in my life.  There are some paintings that are more than 15 feet tall and 25 feet wide.  One, called The Romans in their Decadence, looks like it's the size of a modern day billboard.  If you're look at this painting, turn around and go to the opposite side gallery.  There you'll find one of the most haunting paintings I've ever seen, and one that's now one of my favorites ever.  Le Reve, painted in 1888 by Eduoard Detaille, tells of both the glory and horrors of war in one scene.  You see a French campsite, where young soldiers are sleeping the night before a battle dreaming of glory.  Above them you see the ghosts of previous French wars marching off into the sky.  This patriotic piece was intended to show the honor that comes from fighting for one's country.  I will say that those going to the d'Orsay with a family should probably make sure their children are old enough to see nudity.  While there is plenty of nudity at the Louvre, the style is more of a romanticized version of nudity with historic settings or godlike figures.  The d'Orsay, on the other hand, has a vast collection of 19th Century painters who were painting nudity for the edginess of the content.  For example, there's Manet's painting Olympia, which is simply a painting of a prostitute staring back at you while she lounges nude on a bed.  When you're tired of walking, go upstairs and dine in their in-house restaurant.  The food was reasonably priced, and you get to be surrounded by wonderful works of art.  Both the Louvre and d'Orsay have free nights that anyone can take advantage of, but be prepared to be in very large crowds at these free nights.  It's definitely an idea for a romantic free date.  Also, keep in mind that on these free nights not every wing is open, but for the price you can't complain.

While Paris is home to some of the defining locations of French patriotism and nationalism, there are also some lesser known places that connect directly to American history.  In 1783, the Americans and British signed the Treaty of Paris which won freedom for the United States.  There's the famous Palace of Versailles, where the treaty that ended World War I was signed.  One of the truly lesser known sites in Paris takes us back to the Revolutionary War, and takes us out of the tourist center of Paris, and into the surrounding neighborhood of the 12th Arrondissement.  Getting there from the heart of the city will take you about 45 minutes by train, but it's worth it for any patriotic American.  Getting off the train, you're looking for a place called Picpus Cemetery.  Well hidden over the last two centuries by modern development, you have to search high and low, but eventually you'll find the largest private cemetery in all of Paris.  Sitting inside of the walls of the cemetery is the small Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix chapel.  Once inside the walls, walk to the far back corner and you'll find the grave of the magnificently named Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Mortier, but you may know him better as the Marquis de Lafayette.  For those of you who don't remember your Revolutionary War history, or haven't seen some made up history in Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette was the French noble who, at the age of 19, decided to sail to America to support the colonists in their rebellion against the French.  So overwhelmed by the cause of liberty, he spent the next five years in the United States, and was even a major factor in the final victory at Yorktown over Cornwallis.  Lafayette is well remembered for his bravery and his connection to the American hero George Washington.  Lafayette had lost his father as a small child, and now this orphaned young man became a favorite of the childless Washington, who looked for a son of his own to lead.  After the war, Lafayette returned to Paris, and was there during the French Revolution that followed, which brings us to our next reason to visit Picpus Cemetery.  While the American Revolution led to the most stable government in the world today, the French Revolution descended into a chaotic period known as the Reign of Terror.  During this reign, a villainous group under a man named Robespierre began a series of public executions that would scare the French nation for several years.  During these beheadings, the French needed something to do with the large number of bodies they were creating.  Many of the relatives of the executed were afraid to claim their loved one's body for fear of being associated with them and losing their own head.  At Picpus, mass graves were dug and more than 1300 bodies were thrown in.  These were not just political enemies executed, but also nuns, priests, and more than 500 commoners.  The walls of the small chapel inside the cemetery list the names of the executed.  After the executions stopped, and after Napoleon seized control of the French nation, they decided that anyone related to one of the victims could also be buried at Picpus with their loved ones.  While Lafayette's family had not been executed (his mother abandoned him to his grandmother after her husband's death), his wife's mother had been one of the many victims to die at the guillotine.  Buried beside his wife Adrienne, and under soil that was brought in from Bunker Hill, sits a grave that tells of his devotion to the American cause, and one that's always lying beneath an American flag.  All around are plaques from American groups that thank the Marquis for his courage.  I know this was a long description, but I hope you understand how special this place is for both the French and Americans.  Very few people can be viewed as a hero in multiple countries, but thankfully the Marquis de Lafayette was a hero for us.

There are so many other places you can visit in Paris.  Everyone should take some time away from the tourist sites to visit Suresnes American Cemetery, which is the last resting place of over 1,500 hundred American soldiers and nurses who died during World War I and II.  Besides being a moving tribute to the bravery of American soldiers, it's also arguably the best view of Paris I've ever seen.  From one hilltop you can see all of the landmarks of Paris spread out below you.  When you're walking to the d'Orsay, find an old American friend who's watching over you.  Sitting on the banks of the Seine is a statue of Thomas Jefferson, who's ideas on liberty were an inspiration to many French revolutionaries.  When we visited in March, 2020, sadly they were still working on stabilizing Notre Dame Cathedral from the devastating fire of the year before.  While they are working hard to rebuild it, it may be more than a decade before visitors walk through those doors again.  No matter where you go in Paris, you're bound to find something wonderful to enjoy.  There's food on every corner, just as many shops, and history enough for a lifetime. Just take your time, and enjoy one of the most influential cities in all of the world.

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