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Archive for September, 2009

Paris – Champs-Elysées

Posted in Europe  by admin on September 22nd, 2009

Not merely a boulevard, the Champs-Elysées has justly earned its name. In Greek mythology, the Elysian Fields was the resting place of heroes who dwelt in perfect happiness. Fortunately, visitors don’t have to die to reach it. Though you may think so after making your way through the French airports and into Paris.

This tree-lined avenue begins at the Arc de Triomphe and ends 2km (1.2mi) east at the Egyptian Obelisk, through the 8th arrondissement. An ‘arrondissement’ is a district. Paris is divided into twenty with the first at the center and the others winding clockwise around it.

Along this avenue, one of a handful known by name the world over, is arrayed a cornucopia of cinemas and theaters, cafes and restaurants, and shops and hotels that rival those of Fifth Avenue in New York.

Originally parkland, by the late 1700s the Champs-Elysées had become the street to see and on which to be seen. Beginning in 1916 Louis Vuitton formed an association to transform it into a commercial shopping area. The mixture of commerce and fashion survives to the present.

The character of the road changes along its length with one part forming the commercial area (Place Charles de Gaulle) and the other a walking area lined with chestnut trees and flower beds (Place de la Concorde). After Unirii Blvd in Bucharest it is the widest avenue in Europe.

Above the greenery rise two large buildings, the Petit Palais (which is anything but small) and the Grand Palais. Both house several rotating exhibits. Overflowing with neo-classical carvings and statuary they both deserve a look.

Food and drink along the avenue runs the spectrum from the Fouquet, an upscale bar and restaurant, to MacDonald’s. But there is also the opportunity to sit at one of the many outdoor cafes and simply watch the parade of people while sipping excellent coffee.

There are dozens of shops – everything from the Gap, Lacoste or the Disney Store to specialty boutiques. Through them the Champs-Elysées maintains the reputation for fashion it has enjoyed since the mid-1800s.

Along with the designer stores there are several first class hotels. Whether interested in the Hotel Napoleon, termed ‘the place’ by Errol Flynn, or the Frontenac, or one of the dozen others all have been excellently maintained over the years. Even for those who can’t afford to stay, the lobbies make for a delightful (if discreet), visit.

Not only the hotels, but the avenue itself has enjoyed several upgrades over the years. The latest, completed in 1993, widened the sidewalks to allow for greater foot traffic. Even the streetlamps have been refurbished. The results help to maintain the avenue’s reputation as “la plus belle avenue du monde” (“the most beautiful avenue in the world”).

It may be pointless to describe how to reach the Champs-Elysées, since to be here is to be in Paris. But to be concrete, one can take the metro (subway) to Charles-de-Gaulle-Etoile, George V or Champs-Elysées Clemenceau.

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Paris – Arc de Triomphe

Posted in Europe  by admin on September 16th, 2009

Though less artistic than its older cousin of Porte Saint-Denis, the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile is the more famous and far larger. Set atop the hill of Chaillot it forms the center from which radiates a dozen busy Parisian avenues.

There are in fact several “Arc de Triomphe’s” in Paris. A large arch with two thick towers surmounted by a large horizontal section has been a popular architectural feature since the time of Louis XIV (the ’14th’) in the late 17th century.

But the one located at the intersection of the Champs-Elysées and the Avenue de la Grande Armée (along with 10 other streets) is the one sought out by most visitors.

Its elaborate carvings and friezes make the work an artistic delight, but the monument’s sheer size – unimaginable merely from photographs – turns it into an architectural marvel. The Arc is 50m (164 ft) high, 45m (148ft) long, and 22m (72ft) wide. The vaulted passageway is 30m (98ft) tall.

As you stand underneath the structure (though given the traffic in Paris, never in the center, unfortunately) you’re overwhelmed by the massive stone. Here it’s easy to imagine Napoleon’s armies marching triumphantly down the boulevard and through the opening.

Commissioned in 1806 and completed in 1836, it was constructed for the purpose of celebrating Napoleon’s victories. Ironically, Napoleon never had the chance to do so. Wellington defeated his army at Waterloo in 1815 bringing an end to Napoleon’s self-glorifying monument construction projects.

The monument can be seen from several different sections of Paris far away, in part thanks to the Parisian zoning restrictions forbidding the construction of tall buildings.

But the structure can be seen not only from far away or under the arch, but underneath and inside as well. There’s a tunnel under the street from one side to the other and a spiral staircase in the interior.

At the base are four large relief sculptures set on the bases of four pillars. Engraved around the top are names of major victories of the period. Along the sides are the names of 558 generals – those underlined died in action.

Since the end of WWI the Arc has held the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, commemorating the dead killed between 1914 and 1918. The permanently burning Flame of Remembrance forms a touching part of the impressive monument.

Inside the arch (‘arc’ is French for ‘arch’) there’s a small museum with displays pertaining to its history. (Admission covers the museum and access to the top.)

From the top the views, as they are anywhere above Paris, are awe-inspiring. Not for nothing is it known as the ‘City of Lights’. From there the visitor can see the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde and other well-known sights.

The Arc de Triomphe is most easily reached via the Metro (subway). Exit at the Charles de Gaulle – Etoile station. Or simply stroll down the Champs-Elysées, you can’t miss it.

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Paris – The Seine River

Posted in Europe  by admin on September 10th, 2009

Whether seen by a long, leisurely walk or from one of the many excellent tour boats, the view along the Seine in Paris is a delight.

The river flows nearly 800km (480mi) from Dijon through Paris and into the English Channel. But even the short section through the city provides enough sights to satisfy the most discerning traveler.

La Tour Eiffel can be seen changing shades from cocoa to gold as dusk fades to dark. The lights along its four pillars melding into the spire are only one of the many sights not to be missed.

Joining the left and right banks (the ‘rive gauche’ and the ‘rive droit’) along this ancient river are bridges themselves no stranger to time.

The oldest extant is Pont Neuf, ironically called ‘the new bridge’, whose first stone was laid by Henry III in 1578. Continued during the reign of his successor Henry IV in 1598, the construction was an enormous undertaking for the time. Finally completed in 1607, the bridge itself is, in a sense, older than France. At the time, the country was still split into fairly independent regions, such as Burgundy, Champagne and Normandy.

One of its newer cousins is the Pont d’Austerlitz constructed from 1854 to 1885. Comprised of five cast iron arches with a span of 32m (105ft), it rests on four piers and two stone abutments. (Abutments are the supports for the ends of a bridge.) The bridge has been widened twice from its original 13m (43ft) to the present 30m (98ft).

But not only youth and age are represented along these shores. Elegant beauty, in the form of the Alexander III, is also here. Opened in 1900, the bridge connects the Grand Palais on the right bank to the Invalides on the left. With pillars decorated by a gilded bronze Pegasus and large lampposts encircled by cherubs and nymphs, the Alexander III is among Paris’ most artistic public works.

The many tour boats provide another way to see the sights. Some are small, others larger, but they all offer a relaxed way to see the bridges and parts of Paris from another point of view.

The visitor can enjoy a glass of wine as the lights come on along the Montparnasse. The larger boats even offer lunch or dinner. From the uncovered flat boats tours are given in English and French. Several glide as far as past the Eiffel Tower and back past Notre Dame to Quai Henri IV.

Accessible from the center of the Pont Neuf, just walk down to the tip of the island, du Vert Galant.

Once you’ve completed the boat tour, don’t forget about the other attractions. From the exit it’s just a short walk to many other things to do and see.

Just down the bank is one of the finest art museums in the world, the Musée d’Orsay. And there are several small galleries and shops along the way. Be sure to walk down the stone steps to the river itself and see the bridges from underneath as well.

Enchanté!

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