Category Archives: France

Versailles: Seeing the Entire Estate as a (F)ree (I)ndependent (T)raveler

Versailles is one of the largest and most spectacular tourist destinations that I’ve ever been to.  Most people take a tour bus out of Paris, see the chateau, walk around the gardens immediately outside, and then head back to Paris.  However, those people see only a fraction of what Versailles has to offer.  Let me show you not only highlights of the most incredible and lesser known parts of Versailles but also how to avoid the crowds, when to go, how long to stay, how to get there on your own, and how to make the most of your visit.  Those are essential parts of (f)ree and (i)ndependent (t)ravel and make you F.I.T. to Embark!

Planning: What to Know Before You Go

Versailles is, perhaps, the most crowded tourist destination that I’ve ever been to, so you’re going to need a few tips to avoid as much of the crowds and as many of the lines as possible.  First and foremost, buy a ticket before you go to Versailles. A Paris Museum Pass covers the cost of admission, except for the gardens on spectacle days. Otherwise, go the Chateau de Versailles website and buy a “passport with timed entry” ticket, which gives you access to the entire Versaillesestate and entry to the chateau within a half an hour of the time selected.  Choose a time that’s as early in the morning as possible, as the chateau is least crowded then. VersaillesIf you can’t see the chateau in the early morning, choose later afternoon instead. Be aware that all visitors must pass through a security check that often has a long line. The only way to not go through security is to book a guided tour on the website. Whatever ticket you choose, be sure to print it out before leaving for Versailles.  Second, know which day of the week to go. Sundays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays are the most crowded, so avoid those days if possible. Thursdays and Fridays are best. Third, plan to spend the entire day at Versailles since there’s a lot to see. Don’t be one of those people who only sees the chateau and leaves; you’ll be missing so much! I recommend seeing the chateau in the morning, enjoying lunch at one of the restaurants or cafes along the Grand Canal, and then spending the afternoon touring the gardens, the Grand and Petit Trianons, and the Queen’s Hamlet.  Don’t miss the Queen’s (Marie Antoinette’s) Hamlet, which was my favorite part!  Fourth, if you don’t bring a guidebook with you that describes the various parts of the estate, I recommend purchasing one, with descriptions, in one of Versailles’ many gift shops. Knowing what you’re seeing makes the experience so much more enjoyable.   Speaking of that, let me tell you a little bit about why Versailles exists.

Historical Background of Versailles

You might be surprised to learn that, much like today, any member of the public could visit the Palace of Versailles and even see the King as he moved through the state apartments or went to chapel; the public could even walk into his bedchamber, as long as he wasn’t there.  The entire purpose of Versailles was to prove that all people in France, from the lowliest peasant to the highest-ranking noble, owed everything to the king and that the monarch lived in utter VersaillesVersaillesmagnificence and grandeur due to his absolute power. King Louis XIV, who built Versailles, needed a hold over the nobles and a way to keep them at court, instead of on their own estates or in Paris where they could intrigue and plot against him.  So, in 1682, he moved the royal court and the government to Versailles, which was still under construction at the time. In addition, he made his own private life into a series of ceremonies and rituals to not only keep the nobles busy but also to force them into competition for higher rank and status, assigned by the king himself, of course. Even the French government was based at the Palace of Versailles, with an entire wing built to house the king’s ministers.  The king met, daily, with a different council of the government in the Council Chamber, and he held official audiences, while sitting on an eight foot high silver throne, in the Apollo Drawing Room. Like the sun shining as the center of the universe, the Palace of Versailles served, from 1682 to 1722, as the center of French social, courtly, and governmental life, with the sun king, Louis XIV, at its epicenter, radiating his power and prestige to all those who visited.

Now that you know a little bit about Versailles in general, let me show the highlights of the most incredible and lesser known parts of the chateau and estate.

The Hall of Mirrors

Versailles Hall of MirrorsThe Hall of Mirrors is the most famous room in the Palace of Versailles.  At the time that it was built, mirrors were an expensive luxury, and the best glasswork came from Venice.  By constructing a room with 357 mirrors, King Louis XIV was showing off his enormous wealth and also that French manufacturing could rival that of the Venetian state.  Originally, the hall Versailles Hall of Mirrorswas filled with pieces made of solid silver, including tables, candelabras, and huge vases that held orange trees, which were another luxury of the time.  Imagine how the Hall of Mirrors would have appeared in the evening with the silver furnishings and mirrors reflecting the light of hundreds of candles. It must have been truly amazing!  Unfortunately, the solid silver fixtures were melted down in 1689 to meet the costs of war, but they were replaced by gold Versailles Hall of Mirrorsgilt ones in 1770. Although the hall was used daily as a passageway to and from the king’s apartments and as a place where courtiers could gather to watch the king process to chapel, Louis XIV also used the Hall of Mirrors for his most important and lavish entertainments, such as masked balls, royal weddings, and diplomatic receptions.  Even the paintings on the ceiling were meant to show off France’s might. The artwork portrays Louis XIV’s military campaigns against Holland and its allies and against the Spanish-controlled Netherlands in the War of Devolution. In the center of the ceiling, we see the Sun King turning away from games and pleasures and towards a crown of immortality offered to him by the goddess Glory and the god Mars. The painting is called “The King Governing Alone”. The title is another not so subtle hint that Louis XIV rules as the absolute monarch of France.   Today, the Hall of Mirrors doesn’t just celebrate the former military might of the kings of France, but the room also is a testament to peace. On June 28, 1919, the peace treaty that ended World War I was signed in the Hall of Mirrors. The Treaty of Versailles is still commemorated in Veterans Days and Armistice Days all around the world. In addition, the Hall of Mirrors continues to be used by the French government to welcome important guests from all around the world, including, most famously, John and Jackie Kennedy in 1961 and Queen Elizabeth II in 1957.

The King’s State Bedchamber

The magnificent bed of the Kings of France is located in the King’s State Bedchamber at Versailles, but, believe it or not, many of the kings never actually slept in it!  They had smaller, more private bedrooms. Instead, the King’s State Bedchamber was used for public (yes, I said pubic!) rituals of getting out of bed and going to bed, called the Lever and the Coucher.Versailles  Depending on how high one’s status was or how much one paid to obtain that status, a noble would be allowed into one of many parts, or entry points, into the Lever ceremony. The Grande Entrée allowed nobles to be present when the king arose from bed and changed into his morning clothes.   Those in attendance could arrange, ahead of time, to make a quick, but rehearsed, request to the king as he arose. After the king said his morning prayers, the Première Entrée began. During this part of the ceremony, the king got dressed and shaved. Again, depending on one’s status, there were five different times during the ceremony that nobles were admitted.   After this, the king went into his cabinet where he informed others what he wanted to do that day and where people of privilege could have discussions with and make requests of the monarch. When the king left his cabinet and proceeded into the Grande Galerie, the Grand Lever began. While the king walked to chapel, he would talk briefly to people along the way and even accept some petitions.   During one of the Grand Lever ceremonies, a particular noble approached King Louis XIV to ask for a favor. The king ignored him and loudly remarked “we never see him”. In other words, the king refused to even speak with the gentleman because he had not spent enough time at Versailles. Remember that all of these ceremonies were designed to keep the nobles preoccupied with their status and to force them to remain at Versailles, rather than at their own estates where they could plot for political power.  To us, these ritual seem strange, but King Louis XIV must have been doing something right because look at the power and wealth that he possessed! That kind of life must have been nice. However, I don’t know about you, but I prefer to get up and go to bed in private.

The Fountains and Water Parterres

Designed by landscape architect André Le Nôtre and covering almost 2,000 acres, the magnificent gardens are reason Versailles enough to visit the Palace of Versailles!  The extensive gardens begin on the terraces behind the chateau, where the water parterres, or two large pools, reflect the opulent facade of the Hall of Mirrors.  If the reflection wasn’t beautiful enough, the water parterres are surrounded by marvelous sculptures, made of marble, lead, stone and bronze, including four nymphs and four children from mythology and allegories.  The largest statues represent the rivers of France, including the Loire and Loiret (pictured in this photo), Rhône and Saône, Seine and Marne, and Garonne and Dordogne, as symbols of the kingdom. The water parterres lead to formal symmetrical gardens, known as the north and south parterres, and to the incredible Fountain of Latona.

Choosing Apollo as an emblem to represent himself throughout Versailles, King Louis XIV wanted a fountain that would tell the story of the sun god’s childhood. The resulting fountain features Latona (also known as Leto in Greek), who was Versailles Latona Fountainthe mother of the god Apollo and the goddess Diana.  According to the myth, Latona wandered the earth after giving birth to her divine twins. She came across a pond in Lycia, which is located in modern day Turkey, and needed to quench her thirst. The local peasants in the area refused to allow the goddess to drink, and therefore, they stirred up the mud in the bottom of the pool.  Latona became enraged, and for their inhospitality and her revenge, turned them all into frogs, forcing them to swim forever in the muddy waters of ponds. Modeled on this myth, the Latona Fountain is built in tiers, with peasants in the midst of their transformation from human to amphibian on the first tier, golden frogs spouting water on the second tier, and a marble sculpture, cast in gilded lead, of Latona and her children on the very top.  Unfortunately, the day we visited Versailles, the fountains were not turned on. However, even without the streams of water, the Latona Fountain is a glorious piece of art.

Versailles Fountain of Apollo

The most obvious of those symbols linking King Louis XIV and the sun god is the magnificent Fountain of Apollo. Cast in lead and gilded in gold, the god emerges from the waves, in his horse-drawn golden chariot, thereby causing the sun to rise with him.  Apollo is surrounded by tritons (fish-tailed sea gods), sea monsters, and, usually, huge jets of war, which were, unfortunately, not turned on the day we visited. Nevertheless, the Fountain of Apollo is still an incredible site and an element of symbolism that links the hope of a prosperous new reign to the rising of the sun.

The Grand Trianon

Versailles Grand TrianonThe Grand Trianon is a palace, set within the gardens of Versailles, that Versailles Grand Trianonwas designed so that King Louis XIV and his family could escape the formalities of court life at the Chateau.  Imagine building a smaller house in your background to escape the business of everyday life in your house. Now you understand!  The Grand Trianon is best known for its gorgeous gardens, which in the time of Louis XIV, were planted in pots that Versailles Grand Trianonwere buried in the ground so that the flowers could be changed daily.  I don’t know about you, but I’d love to come out of my house to a new garden every day! The interiors of the Grand Versailles Grand TrianonTrianon were redecorated by Napoleon, and thanks to restoration authorized by Charles de Gaulle in 1965, the palace remains much the same as the French emperor would have experienced it.

The French Pavilion and Petit Trianon

Versailles French PavilionQueen Marie Antoinette loved fun and frivolity, and she hosted summertime balls and concerts in the beautiful French Pavilion.  The structure might appear small in the photo, but the building contains a salon, antechamber, boudoir, lavatory, a small room used to prepare coffee (which was all the rage at the time), and a stove room.  Much bigger than what we would think of as a pavilion!  And if there wasn’t enough space, the Queen had tents and wooden cabins erected around it in the French gardens.  At the time, the surrounding gardens were considered the most beautiful and widely-stocked in all of Europe.  They contained not only ornate, geometrically-shaped flower beds and orchards of fruit trees but also greenhouses to raise exotic products such as pineapples, coffee, and oranges. The French gardens even Versailles Petit Trianoncontained a menagerie and a birdhouse. Imagine having a zoo in your own backyard!  The gardens surround a “small” palace, known as the Petit Trianon, which was built by King Louis XV as a place where he and his mistress could escape from the court life of the other two (yes, two!) palaces at Versailles. Unfortunately, he died just after moving in, and King Louis XVI gave the Petit Trianon as a wedding gift to his bride Marie Antoinette, who lived in a small suite of rooms at the palace.  The Queen loved privacy, and her bedroom featured two mirrors that could be pulled down through the ceiling, from the floor above, to completely cover the windows. That’s what I call royal black-out drapes! However, if you think that’s extravagant, wait to see what I have next for you.

The Queen’s Hamlet

No, what you’re seeing is not a fairy tale village from the French countryside.  The lakeside retreat is entirely contained Versailles Queen's Hamletwithin the gardens at Versailles and was used by Queen Marie Antoinette as a place to hold small gathering and to relax, away from the ceremonies and intrigues of the palace.  Modeled on the style of cottages in Normandy and built between 1783 and 1785, the little village is known as the Queen’s Hamlet. Arranged in a crescent around a man-made lake, the hamlet contains twelve structures including a windmill, boudoir, billiard room, barn, working dairy, model dairy, fisherman’s cottage, guard tower (that looks like a lighthouse), working farm, stove room, pigeon loft, and Queen’s house. While the chateau and gardens are crowded, we had the Queen’s Hamlet almost all to ourselves because most tourists don’t venture this far. If you go to Versailles, don’t miss our favorite part of the estate: the Queen’s Hamlet.

Contrary to popular belief, Queen Marie Antoinette did not pretend to be a farmer nor dress her sheep up in bows at the Versailles Queen's Hamlet FarmQueen’s Hamlet.  The farm was actually a functional one that was designed as a place were the royal children could receive an education about agriculture and animal husbandry.   The Queen appointed a farmer, Valy Bussard, to manage the fields, vineyards, orchards, and Versailles Queen's Hamlet Farmvegetable gardens, which grew produce that was consumed by the royal family and their guests.   She also charged the farmer to experiment with various agricultural techniques and to favor the raising of Swiss animals, which is why the farm was sometimes called the “Swiss Hamlet”. Spending a great deal of time at Versailles in insolation from the people caused a great deal of resentment among the populace.  The lower classes were also angry that, during a time of economic hardship, the the royal family spent so much money on building the hamlet and on courtly life at the palace. Rumors spread that the Queen played as a farmer, which many saw as a mockery of agricultural life, and Versailles Queen's Hamlet Farmthat she met with her lovers at the hamlet.  While none of these rumors are true, they worsened the Queen’s image in the eyes of the people. We all know the unfortunate end of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, and like them, the hamlet also suffered. Age and bad weather damaged the buildings, most of which were eventually torn down. In the early 1800’s and again in the 1900’s, restoration attempts were made, but in 2006, the farm had to be completely restored to its original appearance and function.  Today, it includes a farmhouse, barn, stables, pig stye, hen house, and a variety of animals, which are looked after by the Foundation for Animal Welfare. While at the farm, I had the chance to meet some of these furry friends.

Versailles Queen's Hamlet Marlborough Tower

Although this fairy tale-like building appears to be a lighthouse, it’s actually the Marlborough Tower.  Named after a song that was famous and sung to the young dauphin (crown prince of France) by his nanny, the tower served no real purpose except for the storing of fishing equipment, causing it to be sometimes referred to as the “Fishing Tower”.  It was attached to a cottage in which the fisherman lived and to a working dairy which supplied guests with milk, cheese, and cream, which were made in the working dairy from cows on the estate.

Versailles Queen's Hamlet Guard House

Although Queen Marie Antoinette used the buildings in the village to host parties and small gatherings, she also went to the hamlet to relax and get away from the politics and intrigues of the palace.  Due to the importance of the hostess and her guests, a guard was necessary to provide security. Since the Queen insisted the royal architect design all buildings to appear as if from the countryside of Normandy, the guard house is this quaint cottage with a lovely front garden and arbor.  I wouldn’t mind taking up residence, but I couldn’t provide much security!

The Temple of Love

Versailles Temple of Love

The dreamy Temple of Love sits on a tiny island in a stream inside the English Gardens at Versailles.  At the center, a copy of the sculpture called “Cupid Fashioning His Bow from Hercules’ Club” stands below a domed roof supported by twelve Corinthian columns.   The structure is not actually a real temple but rather a garden folly, a building constructed for decoration in a garden. Some might say that love is itself a folly, but, whether you are a romantic or not, one can’t help but be charmed by this most enchanting part of the gardens at Versailles.

Getting to Versailles On Your Own

Many people take a tourist bus to Versailles, but the best way to get there is by train.   Going on your own is extremely Versailles Temple of Loveeasy and allows you to spend as much time at the chateau and estate as you want.

Versailles is about a 35 minute train ride from Paris, but I would leave yourself an hour of travel time just to be on the safe side.   Trains for Versailles leave from any of the following stations: Invalides, Musee de Orsay, Champ de Mars, Gare d’Austerlitz, St. Michel, and Pont de l’Alma.  At the station of your choice, go to any ticket machine and buy a round trip ticket for the RER-C train to “Versailles Chateau”.  The costs includes the trip from that particular station to the RER train station.  Once you’re at the RER station, get on any train listed as “Versailles Chateau”.  While aboard, you can relax without having to be aware of when to get off.  All trains listed as “Versailles Chateau” have the palace as their final stop.

When you arrive, exit the station and follow the signs and the flow of traffic to the palace.  It’s about a ten minute walk.

To head back to Paris, catch any train because all of them will stop at the RER station in Paris.

I sincerely hope you enjoy your visit to Versailles and that these tips and descriptions help you to see the palace, gardens, and estate all on your own.  Bon voyage!

Notre Dame: Understanding Big Architecture, Finding Little Known Relics, Avoiding Large Crowds

Notre Dame in Paris is one of the world’s most famous and recognizable cathedrals.   Everyone goes to see it, but most don’t know what to look for.  Allow me to guide you through understanding the big architecture, finding the little known relics, and avoiding the large crowds at the cathedral.


Let’s start with that you can’t miss: the monumental architecture.  It’s best observed from the outside of the cathedral.  We are going to start, not at the front like you expected, but rather on the side and back of the cathedral.  So make your way to the side or back, find a comfortable place to sit, and let me guide you through the basics of an integral part of medieval architecture: flying buttresses.  It sounds like a funny word, but flying buttresses are one of the most important advances in constructing immense building, like cathedrals.  In fact, Notre Dame was among the first buildings in the world to use the flying buttress. However, the designs for Notre Dame did not originally include these support structures around the choir and the nave.  As construction began, the walls became thinner as the cathedral grew higher and as architects incorporated huge, stained glass windows. As the walls pushed outward from the weight of the roof, stress fractures began to appear, and therefore, the the architects were forced to includes support structures around the outside walls.  They are known as flying buttresses, which transfer the massive amount of weight from the roof along arches, or “flyers”, into massive piers that are built to convey the force of the weight into the ground. These incredible feats of medieval engineering are meant to support (or buttress) the cathedral from collapsing. In addition many statues were placed around the outside of the cathedral to act as supports to the columns.  These sculptures originally were brightly painted, but the color has worn off over time. As with most historical buildings, their appearance today is very different from how people of the past saw them.


Notre Dame

Speaking of sculptures, it’s time to get up and work our way around to the front of the cathedral in order to take a look at some amazing statuary.  To many visitors, the most striking features about Notre Dame are the ornate portals of the west facade, or main entrance, of the church.  The elaborate decoration of each doorway relates biblical stories that helped illiterate medieval peasants learn about their religion.  The central and largest doorway is referred to as the Portal of the Last Judgement.  Above the doorway are three horizontal rows of sculptures. The lowest level shows the resurrection of the dead, while the one above it depicts St. Michael weighing their souls. In the same frieze, you can see some souls going to heaven (on the left), while others are condemned to hell (on the right) by the devil himself, who appears in the frieze. Can you find him?  On the uppermost level, Christ is enthroned in heaven, surrounded by reminders that his crucifixion made the resurrection of the dead possible. He appears with wounds on his hands and his feet, while angels next to him hold the spear that pierced his body, the nails used to pin him to the cross, and the cross itself. Surrounding Christ is a heavenly court of angels, prophets, martyrs, and patriarchs carved upon five arches.  All those who pass through the doorways are reminded only only of Christ’s sacrifice, but also of the need to avoid sin, no matter who you are. At the bottom of the fifth arch, the devil appears again; this time he is crushing the souls of a rich man, a bishop, and a king. Similarly, the left portal presents worshipers with models of heavenly grace and reminders of the punishments for bad behavior. The left doorway is called the Portal of the Virgin because the levels of sculpture above the doorway depict the death of the Virgin Mary, and above that, Mary being crowned and seated upon a throne in heaven, next to her son.  Between the two left-hand doors, we see Mary, again, holding her infant son Jesus. If you look just below, you’ll notice a familiar relief of Adam and Eve, who is being tempted by the serpent, thereby reminding worshipers not to be enticed by sin. To the left of the doorway, look for four figures, one of which is holding his own head.  Can you see him in my photo?  You may recognize him as St. Denis, Paris’ first bishop and patron saint who was beheaded by the Romans. To read more about him, see my post about Sacré-Cœur.  Now, let’s consider Notre Dame’s far right-handside doorway, which is called the Portal of St. Anne. Immediately above the doorway, we see the marriage of St. Joachim and St. Anne, who were the parents of the Virgin Mary.   In the level above that, sculptures depict the Nativity (when Mary gave birth to Jesus), the Epiphany (when the three wise men visited the holy family after Jesus’ birth) and the Annunciation of Mary (when she went to heaven). You might be wondering why there is so much emphasis on Mary.  Well, after all, Notre Dame is dedicated to “our lady” the Virgin Mary. What I believe is the most interesting story of the cathedral’s facade belongs to the horizontal row of 28 sculptures located above the huge arches of the three doorways. Today, these are known as the Kings of Judah, each of which was a king of the ancient land and, supposedly, a descendant of Mary and Jesus. However, during the most radical period of the French Revolution, these sculptures were mistaken for kings of France.  Fueled by anti-royal hatred, revolutionaries decapitated the sculptures and took them away. The cathedral was rededicated to the “Cult of Reason and the Supreme Being”, and, inside, many statues of Mary were replaced by the Goddess of Liberty. However, according to local legend, a school teacher and sympathetic royalist gathered up the severed heads and buried them in her backyard. They must have been hidden well because they weren’t re-discovered until 1977, when reconstruction was being done on a bank in the area. However, if you’re standing in front of Notre Dame, you still won’t see the heads. After their discovery, the royal heads were donated to the Musée de Cluny, located just a few blocks away, where you can still see them today.


Another surprising and little known fact about Notre Dame is that it holds three of the the holiest artifacts in Christianity.  The Treasury of Notre Dame contains a reliquary, which includes the supposed Crown of Thorns, a piece of the True Cross, and one of the Holy Nails.  In 1238, Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople offered the Crown of Thorns to King Louis IX of France, in order to obtain the latter’s support for the weakening Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire.  The Crown of Thorns was supposedly worn by Jesus Christ at his crucifixion. While Sainte-Chapelle was originally constructed in order to hold this holy relic, after the French Revolution, it was deposited, in 1801, into a crystal reliquary in Notre Dame.  The church also purportedly contains a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The 24cm wood fragment was originally kept in the Treasury of Sainte-Chapelle, but in 1805, after the French Revolution, it was preserved in a crystal case and moved to Notre Dame.  Finally, Notre Dame contains an alleged nail that the Romans used to pierce Jesus’ body during his crucifixion. Originally entrusted to the Treasury of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Patriarch of that city gave it to Emperor Charlemagne, in 799, and he entrusted it to the Abbey of Saint-Denis.  During the French Revolution, the government seized the holy artifact but, in 1824, returned it to Notre Dame, where it’s kept in a nail-shaped crystal reliquary adorned with a head that is gilded in silver. Unfortunately, Notre Dame’s Reliquary is not open to the public. However, if you’d like to see any or all of these holy relics, they are presented to the public at special masses held on the first Friday of every month and on each Friday during Lent, both at 3:00.


Interested in seeing the interior of Notre Dame or attending a mass to be in the presence of its holy relics?  So are millions of other people each year.  You need to know when to go and how to avoid the crowds.  Since admission is free, the line to be admitted to the cathedral is often extraordinarily long due to security.  Crowds are the worst from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.  If possible avoid seeing Notre Dame on weekends or on Tuesday (when the Louvre is closed).  The best times to visit are early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  The cathedral opens at 7:45AM, so I would suggest arriving as early as possible.   Alternatively, you could try seeing the cathedral in the late afternoon, since it closes at 6:45pm.  We arrived early in the morning and had to stand in a short line to be admitted.  Even though I’ve only covered the outside of Notre Dame in this post, the inside is definitely worth the wait.  After all, you don’t want to go home from Paris being the only person who didn’t go inside Notre Dame, do you?

Sacré-Cœur: the Sacred Heart and the Best Views of Paris


Sacré-Cœur (officially the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris) stands atop the highest point, the hill named Montmartre, in the city of Paris.  Many people believe that the basilica is older than it actually is. However, construction began in 1875 and was completed in 1914. The church is built as a dedication to the 58,000 soldiers who lost their Sacré-Cœurlives during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, and as an act of repentance for the sins that many believed caused France to suffer misfortunes and lose that war.  Funds for Sacré-Cœur’s construction came entirely from private donors, who paid for elements as small as a single brick or as large as a giant column. The church was designed by an architect who actually beat out 77 others in a competition but didn’t live long enough to see its completion.  Built in a Romano-Byzantine style, the creamy whiteness of the basilica comes from the fact that it was constructed out of travertine stone that contains a high degree of calcite which essentially bleaches the structure in wet weather.   Following its construction, the church was designated as a basilica, or a pilgrimage destination. Today, over 11 million people still visit Sacré-Cœur each year, some for religious reasons and Sacré-Cœurothers just as tourists. Entrance to the the inside of the basilica is free and absolutely worth a visit.  For me, the highlight of the church’s interior is the extraordinary mosaic, named “Christ in Glory”, in the apse. The mosaic is one of the largest in the world and features a 60 ft. tall Jesus surrounded by the Virgin Mary, Saint Michael, Joan of Arc, the Holy Trinity, a host of other saints, a pope offering the Sacred Heart of Jesus to the entire world, and representations of events from French history.  Another site worth seeing is the Grand Organ, which is considered to be one of the most remarkable in Paris and, such, was designated a national monument. To hear the organ in all of its glory, attend mass on Fridays at 3pm or Sundays at 11:00am, 6:00pm, 10:00pm, or for Vespers on Sundays at 4:00pm.


While at Sacré-Cœur, you also need to take in the extraordinary views from this highest point in Paris.  You have two choices: (1) For a fee, climb the 300 steps to the top of the dome, which is the second tallest structure in Paris, to see the surrounding countryside for over 60 kilometers, or (2) Take in the free views from the steps of the outside of the basilica, where you’ll see tourists taking photos and selfies, people trying to identify the various monuments and buildings of the Paris skyline, and lovers holding hands and stealing kisses.  Either way, you’re have remarkable city views.  And if you come at sunset, you’ll have an even grander treat.


view from the dome

Since Sacré-Cœur and its city views are such popular tourist destinations, the location and the basilica can get extremely crowded.  The best times to visit are on weekdays or before 9:30am on weekends. Sundays are the busiest day of the week, so I would advise avoiding that day altogether, unless you’re attending mass.

To get to Sacré-Cœur, the closest metro stops are Anvers, Abbesses, or Pigalle.  Once there, if you’d like to avoid climbing the hill, you can take the funicular, which costs one metro ticket and is located near the Anvers metro stop.  Alternatively, there’s a city bus, called the Montmartrobus, that starts next to the Place de Pigalle metro station (along Boulevard de Clichy) and has a stop close the basilica.  For more information about the bus, click here.

The Church of Saint-Sulpice: A Sanctuary Full of Mystery and Science

Saint-SulpiceThe beautiful Church of Saint-Sulpice is only slightly smaller than Notre Dame, making Saint-Sulpiceit Paris’ second church.  You may recognize the church from the novel and movie The DaVinci Code.  In these works of fiction, the church is described as having been built over an ancient temple and containing the secret coded letters “P” and “S”, supposedly indicating the mysterious group known as the Priory of Sion.  The novel and film also claim that the sanctuary features a rose line leading to an obelisk that reveals the location of the Holy Grail.  All of this is fun to think about, and these intriguing details even drew me to visit the church.  However, I’m sorry to break it to you; these are all inventions of the author.

The current Church of Saint-Sulpice was built, beginning in 1641, over a pre-existing Romanesque church, not an ancient temple. The “P” and “S” letters in the stained glass windows refer to St. Peter and St. Sulpice, to whom the church is dedicated.  Finally, the supposed rose line is actually a brass meridian line leading to a marble obelisk, which was installed in 1727. This clever system, Saint-SulpiceSaint-Sulpicethat was set up by a hired English clock maker, allows a ray of light, from an upper window, to pass through a lens and then hit precise points on an obelisk only on the days of the winter solstice and both equinoxes.  This intriguing arrangement was used by church priests to calculate the date of Easter each year.  So while the Church of Saint-Sulpice may not help you to find the Holy Grail, a visit will introduce you to many intriguing features inside, including two magnificent organs, the astronomical devices described above, a unique and highly symbolic statue of the Virgin Mary, and the supposed Shroud of Turin.


Saint-SulpiceMany visitors to the Church of Saint-Sulpice are interested in seeing the Shroud of Turin.  The Shroud is a piece of linen cloth that allegedly contains the image of Jesus Christ.  After his crucifixion, Jesus was supposedly wrapped in this shroud and buried in a tomb.  However, as far back as 1390, a local bishop wrote that the shroud was a fake and that a local artist confessed to creating the forgery.  In 1988, three radiocarbon dating procedures confirmed that the Shroud of Turin dates back to somewhere between 1260 and 1390, proving that the artifact is, indeed, a fake.  What I have to tell you next is, likely, even more disappointing.  The actual, supposed Shroud of Turin is located in the Cathedral of Turin in Italy.  What you’re seeing in the Church of Saint-Sulpice are actually photographs of the shroud.  Despite the controversy surrounding it, taking a look at the photographs of the shroud on display and learning about its history is definitely interesting and worth your time.


Saint-SulpiceFor me, the most impressive part of my visit to Saint-Sulpice wasn’t unraveling the truth behind the mysteries of the DaVinci Code or the Shroud of Turin, but rather seeing a breathtakingly beautiful and symbolic statue of the Virgin Mary which stands inside the Lady Chapel of the church.  Designed by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle and sculpted out of white marble, this evocative statue features Mary holding a baby Jesus with a burst of sunlight behind them.  If you look carefully at the photo, you’ll notice some interesting symbolism. Mary is standing on an orb, and a snake lays trampled beneath her feet. You can also see dramatically sculpted clouds flowing down to a small sacrificial lamb.  What does all this symbolism mean? The sculpture is reminding the faithful that Mary’s son, Jesus, volunteered himself to be the sacrificial lamb for all humanity. By doing so, Christians believe he brought about an end to permanent death and provided his followers with the resurrection of the soul.  Statues like this one are not only beautiful to look at but also provide a symbolic message that’s enjoyable for travelers to decode.  For me, learning the truth behind the mysteries of the artifacts in the church and decoding the symbolism embedded in its art makes travel more meaningful and memorable.


Location of the Church of Saint-Sulpice

The Church of Saint-Sulpice is located at 2 Rue Palatine in Paris.  The nearest metro stop is called Saint-Sulpice.  Before going Saint-Sulpiceinside, admire the gorgeous fountains, take a selfie or two, and enjoy a moment in the serene setting.

For specific directions to the church, click on the map below.

After visiting Saint-Sulpice, consider exploring the nearby Luxembourg Gardens, which are full of not only beautiful flowers and landscapes but also an amazing array of fun activities for the entire family.  For more information see my post “The Luxembourg Gardens: The Favorite Outdoor Living Space of Parisians”.




The Luxembourg Gardens: The Favorite Outdoor Living Space of Parisians

Originally part of the palace that was buiLuxembourg Gardenslt for Marie de Medici in the early 1600’s, the Luxembourg Gardens are, today, the outdoor living room and playground for Parisians and their families.  The 25 hectare (62 acre) gardens features many activities for the entire family.   One of my favorite parts was a huge basin of water surrounded by gorgeous flower beds and statues of the queens of France, saints, and copies of Classical sculptures.  Children can rent miniature remote-controlled boats that they then sail across the basin. I really wanted to try them out, but it seemed more like an activity for the Luxembourg Gardenslittle ones.  Oh well!   For the nature and flower lover, there are both English and French style gardens and a geometric forest in between the two.  The greenhouse, which is surrounded by

Luxembourg Gardens

Parisians playing lawn bowling in the gardens.

a rose garden, contains a collection of orchids, and the apiary allows people to learn about beekeeping. Families flock over to the southwest corner of the gardens where an orchard of fruit trees is the setting for a marionette theater.  Children will also love the vintage carousel, playground, slides, and pony rides. The gardens also contain areas to play tennis, lawn bowling, chess, and bridge. After all the activities, take a break at the gazebo where free concerts are held or enjoy a glass of wine and a snack in the small cafe with plentiful outdoor seating.  You can also take a stroll through the orangerie of the former palace which showcases art, photographs, and sculptures. There really is something for everyone at the Luxembourg Gardens, and as we walked around, we got a sense that Parisians love them as much as we did.



Luxembourg Gardens

Even on a cloudy day, the gardens are a delight!

Even if you’re not a fan of history or architecture, you can’t help be impressed by the incredible Luxembourg Palace that dominates the gardens.  Since 1958, the palace has been the home of the French Senate.  However, the Luxembourg Palace was originally built, beginning inLuxembourg Gardens 1615, to be a residence for Marie de Medici, dowager queen and mother of King Louis XIII.  Marie was from Florence and had the architect design her new home based on the style of the Pitti Palace, in her home city. During the French Revolution, the palace had a short life as a museum, and with the rise of Napoleon, the French Senate began to meet in the building for the first time in 1804.  At this time, the interiors were redesigned so, unfortunately, nothing inside remains of Marie de Medici’s layout or furnishings. During the Second World War, the Luxembourg Palace was occupied by a commander of the Luftwaffe, the Nazi Air Force.  After the war, the Paris Peace Conference was held in the building, and upon the declaration of the Fifth French Republic in 1958, the French Senate began meeting there again.  Today, visitors can tour the Luxembourg Palace on Mondays and Fridays when the Senate is not in session.


One of my favorite locations in the Luxembourg Gardens is the gorgeous Medici Fountain.  The fountain was built around 1630 for Marie de Medici, dowager queen and mother to King Louis XIII, as part of the gardens surrounding the Luxembourg GardensLuxembourg Palace.  After the fountain fell into disrepair, it was moved 30 meters, in the 1860’s, to its current location to make room for a street. Since the fountain no longer stood against a wall, the Leda Fountain, Luxembourg Gardensa different architectural features which was in danger of being demolished, was moved from another location in Paris and placed behind the Medici Fountain.  The Medici Fountain also underwent other remodeling at the time. The original statues of nymphs were replaced by two sculptures representing the Rhône and Seine Rivers. Statues of a faun and a huntress were also added, and a sculpture of Venus was removed. Two replica Greek masks were included to symbolize tragedy and comedy.  The relief of the original Medici coat of arms was restored, and the water basin was changed from a simple one with a single fountain to a long one which is now surrounded by beautiful flowers and shaded by trees. The restored Medici Fountain is a lovely place to sit and rest after walking through the extensive Luxembourg Gardens.  It would also be a romantic setting for a Parisian date. The fountain is one of many treasures that we found through the marvelous gardens.


The Luxembourg Gardens

The Luxembourg Gardens are located in the 6th arrondissement of Paris.  The gardens have many metro stops aroudn them.  On the north side of the gardens, the closest stops are Odeon and Saint-Sulpice.  Click on the map below to get specific directions.



Les Invalides: Napoleon’s Spectacular Tomb and French Army Museum

Les InvalidesLes Invalides, also known as the Hotel Nationale des Invalides (The National Les InvalidesResidence of the Invalids), is a complex housing museums and monuments about the military history of France in a former hospital and retirement home for veterans.  The original structure was completed in 1676 as a home and hospital for retired and wounded veterans. Les Invalides continued to serve soldiers until the early 20th century when the veterans were dispersed into smaller facilities and military history museums were installed.  Today, Les Invalides houses the fascinating Museum of the Armies of France, a museum of military models, and a museum of contemporary French history. However, the main reason most people visit Les Invalides is to see the magnificent tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte. The French emperor is buried underneath the spectacular dome of the Cathedral of St.-Louis des Invalides.  Members of Napoleon’s Les InvalidesLes Invalidesfamily, generals who served under him, and other heroes of French military history are also buried in the church and its crypt. Even if you’re not as interested in Napoleonic history as I am, you should visit the cathedral just to see the breathtaking architecture. The magnificent Dome des Invalides rises above the tomb of Napoleon.  The dome is 351 feet (107 meters), making it one of the tallest monuments in the city of Paris.  Inside the dome, the Baroque painting, by Charles de La Fosse, creates an illusion of a three-dimensional space, which is, in this case, the heavens.  In the scene, you can see an angel holding a crown of triumph. Along one side of the dome, St. Louis (King Louis IX of France, who was canonized by the Catholic Church) hands a sword to Jesus Christ, who points towards the sky and is accompanied by the Virgin Mary.  All of these symbols of triumph are clearly meant to celebrate the victories of Napoleon, who lays entombed below.


Les InvalidesAfter your visit to the church, meander through the intriguing galleries of Les Invalidesthe Army Museum which cover French military history from the Middle Ages through World War II.  Some of the highlights for me were the sword of the Marquis de Lafayette, who helped the United States of America win independence, Napoleon’s stuffed horse, campaign tent and gear, and one of his famous bicorne hats, and the exhibit on World War II, including tanks, planes, and an enigma machine, which was used to crack the Nazi codes. A visit to Les Invalides is a must for any architecture or history buff. Best of all, if you have purchased a Paris Museum Pass, both the cathedral and tombs are covered.


Location of Les Invalides

The Hotel des Invalides, which includes Napoleon’s tomb and the Museum of the Armies of France, is located at the Places des Invalides in Paris.  The closest Metro stops are Ecole Militaire or Varenne.  Click on the map below for specific directions.

Consider visiting Les Invalides during the day and then seeing the Eiffel Tower lit up at night in the nearby Place du Trocadero.  For more information about seeing the Eiffel Tower during the day and at night, see my post “The Eiffel Tower: Avoiding Lines, Viewing Levels, and Seeing It at Night”.






The Eiffel Tower: Avoiding Lines, Viewing Levels, and Seeing It at Night

Eiffel Tower

View from the Tower

Eiffel TowerThe Eiffel Tower . . . when most people are asked to close their eyes and think of an image of Paris, it’s what they’ll imagine.  To be honest, before going to Paris, I had never been a huge fan of the immense tower of steel. However, as we ascended the tower, I was impressed by the incredible feats of engineering it took to build such a gigantic structure and the breathtaking views of Paris from the various observation levels.  The best views are definitely from the second level. There you can actually make out the grand monuments of the city. Level One also has incredible views, a multimedia presentation about the tower’s construction and upkeep, and, usually, an ice rink in winter! The first level also has a glass floor where you can look straight down from an 18 story building.  I wasn’t brave enough to do it, given my fear of heights.  On this floor, there are also touch screen exhibits for visitors to explore a variety of topics.  Unfortunately, we were there on a cloudy day, but even then, the views were incredible!


Eiffel Tower

View of the Seine River from the Tower

Given that the Eiffel Tower is such a huge tourist destination, you have to expect large crowds and long lines.  Here are some of my tips to make the experience a little less stressful:

(1) First and foremost, purchase your tickets and reserve an entry time online at this site.  Do not go to tower without reserving an entry time. Tickets go on sale three months ahead of time and sell out fast. So plan ahead and be sure of your date because tickets are non-refundable.

(2) Print your tickets and bring then with you.

(3) There is heightened security around the tower, and, therefore, you’ll have to pass through security checks. Bags will be searched, and large bags are not allowed inside. Be sure to plan enough time to get through security.

(4) The entrances are located at the base of each of the tower’s four pillars.  Once inside, you’ll have to wait for your entry time.  About ten minutes before your entry time, head for the line marked “Visitors with Reservations”.  After getting your ticket scanned, you’ll still have to wait in line for an elevator.

Eiffel Tower

View of the Tower at Night from the Place du Trocadero

(5) Budget a few hours for getting through security, waiting in lines, and enjoying your sightseeing experience.

(6) Even if you don’t want to go up the tower, seeing it at night is an absolute must. Here are my recommendations . . .

Eiffel Tower

I enjoyed going up the tower, but my favorite Eiffel Tower experience was seeing it at night.  The absolute best place for evening viewing is from the Place du Trocadero, which, conveniently, has its own metro stop.  The place is really happening at night. You’ll encounter food stands, souvenir vendors, street performers, and Parisians enjoying an evening out with their own alcohol and picnics.  If you didn’t bring our own adult beverage, there are, believe it or not, wandering vendors that will sell them to you.  Arrive at dusk, find a spot and enjoy the show. The Eiffel Tower sparkles every five minutes on the hour, so plan your visit accordingly.  With my fiance next to me and the tower sparkling, I then truly understood why Paris is the city of romance.


Location of the Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower is located on the Champ de Mars at 5 Avenue Anatole France in Paris.  The tower is a 10 minute walk from either the Bir-Hakeim or Trocadero stops on the Metro.  Alternatively, you can take buses #69 or #87 to Avenue Joseph Bouvard in the Champs de Mars.  From any of those locations, just head to the tower, which will be towering above you.

To see the Eiffel Tower lit up at night, go to the Place du Trocadero at the Trocadero metro stop.  Then follow the crowds.

To see all of these locations, click on the map below.  Select the markers on the map to get directions to each location.

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